The Parenting Trap
As we pass between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day it’s natural to reflect on your own experience as a child and at the same time ponder our own parenting approach. Many of us worry and agonize over the decisions we make for our children and the methods we use to teach them values and just about everything else. From day one, taking responsibility for a human is a monumental challenge and comes with an extremely wide range of advice that contradicts almost as often as food reports.
Personally, I set out to parent with a compulsion for perfection. I felt such heavy guilt if I had to leave the kids with a sitter and heaven help me if one of them pushed another child, wiggled too much for the teacher, or left their math book at school. It was as if I messed up.
That didn’t really get better when they missed curfew, hit another car in the high school parking lot or failed a big test. It was as if I had made a mistake that caused their misstep. I suppose I thought I was ultimately responsible for providing the best environment, food, neighborhood, school, moral training, and don’t even get me started on healthy food. I grew organic food, cooked big homemade meals, and worried nonstop about their nutrition.
What was I missing?
Although hindsight is far clearer, I have learned a few things. My desire for perfection was misguided. Children need a good parent, but probably not a perfect parent. I obviously was not perfect, in fact, I was far from it. But what we know now is that parenting should take on a realistic and balanced approach to life.
I set myself up for failure and the horrible experience of constant guilt. Guilt leads to shame and all the anxiety and worrying is unproductive and most of all unattainable. There simply isn’t a perfect parent.
According to Jessica CombsRohr, Ph.D. in the April 2021 edition of Psychology Today, “Aiming for mistake-free parenting means that performance is more important than meeting their needs.”
I wish I had understood that early on in my parenting journey. Good enough parenting is a more realistic goal that allows us to include balance in our lives. Doing the best we can and allowing ourselves to acknowledge that we fall short sometimes is doable. Meeting our children’s needs includes showing them how to admit mistakes and give life our best effort moving forward.
The consequences of parenting with the goal of perfection can be mentally and physically harmful for parents and children. Parents can become anxious, resentful, or secretly want to escape during the stress of caring for children. Although these feelings are normal in the midst of life, a perfectionistic parent heaps on layers of guilt. As you might imagine, children can sense these reactions from their parent and mirror their responses as they develop.
What all children need is a trusted adult to nurture, guide, and protect them. If a child knows someone unconditionally loves them, they are more likely to explore and develop the confidence they need for success.
Relationships are built on flexibility and a mixture of emotions and experiences. I encourage you to aim for connection with your family in a real and sometimes messy world.