The Life-Changing Parenting Lesson I Learned From a Bucket of Seashells

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Because I’m a creature of habit, I got up at 6am every morning on our recent vacation to go for a walk.

What can I say, I’m a morning person

After the first day, however, my walks morphed into something much more than thirty minutes of exercise. They became focused, targeted, voracious hunts for…seashells.

You see, we were vacationing at the beach, and on the very first day my 4-year-old developed an intense obsession with collecting seashells. He’s always been one to go all in, and this was no exception.

Do you want to build a sandcastle? Nah.

Swim in the ocean? No thanks.

Look for seashells? LET’S GO, LET’S GO, LET’S GO!

His enthusiasm was contagious. On my early morning strolls I couldn’t stop myself from searching for a few to take back to the beach house for him. I splashed through the lapping waves and grabbed shells out of the surf—tossing the broken ones back as I sought out a coveted “keeper.” 

I found some impressive ones. Or so I thought.

The Life-Changing Parenting Lesson I Learned From a Bucket of Seashells

When I brought these two back for him, I expected oooooohhhhs and ahhhhhhhhhs. I expected eyes widened with excitement, a smile broad with gratitude. 

Instead, I got a shrug. A measly shrug. 

The Life-Changing Parenting Lesson Those Seashells Taught Me

“Aren’t these shells beautiful?” I pressed him.

“Sure, they’re pretty nice,” he replied, but without much enthusiasm. 

“What do you mean ‘pretty nice?’ They’re gorgeous!!!”

It’s true, they were gorgeous shells. Obviously. But it turns out gorgeous was not what my son was after in the first place.

What a Bucket of Shells Can Teach Us About Good Parenting

Later that day, I observed as my 4-year-old filled up his bucket with his own shells. He examined each one up close to determine whether or not he wanted to bring it home with us. 

I saw him take perfectly shaped shells and throw them back to the high seas. 

I watched him take broken shells with jagged edges and irregular holes and place them carefully into his bucket.

I didn’t understand.

“What do you like about this one?” I asked, picking up a mangled quarter of a seashell that was by no means a “keeper.” 

“I like the little stripe on the side that looks purple when you turn it toward the sunlight,” he replied matter-of-factly. Duh, Mom.

“And this one?”

“It looks like it has tiger stripes.”

“And what about this broken one?”

“Well, that one’s broken into the shape of a crescent moon.” 

I looked at it again. Indeed, it was shaped exactly like a crescent moon. Somehow I’d totally missed that.

A metaphor for parenting

Looking at that moon-shaped seashell, I felt the heavy reminder that so often our children are our wisest teachers.

Because while I only saw the breaks, the holes, and the rough edges, my 4-year-old saw the unique stripes, the hint of iridescence, the faint glimmer of purple.

I saw a useless shell to toss back to the sea; he saw the moon.

Some days, it’s a metaphor for my whole life. While I’m off pursuing some illusion of perfection, my son is busy treasuring what’s right in front of us. While I’m throwing away the broken bits, he’s busy seeing them for what they really are: gorgeous.

The beauty in our brokenness 

My revelation wasn’t just about recognizing the broken beauty of nature. It was also about appreciating the beauty in our own human brokenness as well.

Ultimately, what fosters true connectedness between parents and children can’t be captured in a flawless stock photo, the kind that’s used to sell picture frames.

What fosters true connectedness between parents and children is honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability; in other words, brokenness. 

It’s holding your preschooler as he travels through the dark tunnel of his emotions, despite how uncomfortable that might make YOU.  

It’s apologizing to your tween for the condescending way you spoke to her, even though saying sorry to your child sometimes feels awkward and backward. 

It’s empathizing with your teenager by sharing your own embarrassing stories of fear and confusion during those challenging years, your blushing cheeks notwithstanding.

It’s having the courage to SHOW UP with our children as our true selves, rather than as “perfect parents.” 

The Life-Changing Parenting Lesson I Learned From a Bucket of Seashells

What those shells really taught me

Basically, what the seashells taught me is this: What brings us closer to our children isn’t the picture-perfect moments, it’s the broken ones. 

Cultivating trust and support in a family is less about the good times, and more about how you recover from the rocky ones together.

Looking at my son collecting all those broken shells was the reminder I needed that the whole point of parenting—and really, of life—is not to avoid the painful bits. It’s not about seeing the hurt, the tears, and the struggle and hurling them back into the ocean as fast as you can so everyone can get back to (forced) smiling.

Wholehearted parenting, rather, is about seeing all the potential those painful bits hold. They are doorways to the feelings of connection and belonging we humans are hardwired to need.

Because those painful parts—the suffering, the mistakes, the embarrassment, the failures, the fears, the distractions, and all the other jagged edges we all have—are the only things strong enough to break open our hearts to one another. 

 Like I said before, my son’s enthusiasm for those broken shells was contagious. By the end of our vacation, all thirteen family members staying in our beach house were searching for the “keepers”—with a much broader, more enlightened sense of what a “keeper” truly was. 

And today, I have a few of those true keepers sitting on my desk. My personal reminder to notice the beauty in the brokenness—as a parent, as a partner, and as a person.