I’m yet to meet a parent who has never felt guilty about some aspect of their interaction with their children.
So many of us seem to embark upon the awesome voyage of parenthood with high hopes and great expectations of ourselves. We know the parenting methods that we believe in, and we know the things that we will never ever do.
Probably none of us would admit to trying to be the perfect parent. On a rational level, we all know that there’s no such thing as perfection. But the reality is that we don’t have much grace for our own weaknesses and failures when it comes to raising our children.
Why is it that we hold ourselves to such impossible parenting standards? Some of us are perfectionists in every area of our lives, and our parenting simply follows the same pattern. Some of us are quite happy being imperfect in other areas, but we just can’t let ourselves off the hook when it comes to our children.
Maybe some of it is because we all had imperfect childhoods ourselves… and sometimes very very imperfect. Maybe our striving for perfection with our own children is partly driven by deep hurts we’re still carrying from our early years and the vows we made to break the cycle. Maybe the fear of failing as a parent is so paralyzing because we can’t bear the thought of our children experiencing the difficult emotions that we did.
The process of raising children brings up all sorts of strange and long-buried feelings from our own childhoods. Very often we’re not aware of what’s going on or why we feel and respond the way we do with our children. When we find this happening, it’s worth trying to trace the feelings back and look for their root.
But what’s wrong with aiming high in our parenting and trying to be the best we can for our children? Absolutely nothing in itself. But the question is, what do we do when we fail to meet our own expectations (which we certainly will)?
If we have set our sights on perfection, it won’t be easy for us to accept our own weaknesses and failures. We may feel angry and ashamed of ourselves. We may slip into a sense of hopelessness – I’m never going to be a good enough parent, so why bother try? When faced with our own imperfections, we may be dragged into a fierce inner storm.
And what will our child experience while we’re going through this emotional whirlwind? They will experience our absence. Children get confused by emotional absence. Within a split second, absence gets interpreted as rejection and then feelings of guilt and shame flood in. I must have done something bad to make my parent pull away from me.
Let’s think of a story to illustrate this point.
Let’s say I have set myself the goal of being patient, understanding and sensitive to my child’s needs. Maybe my own emotional needs were not met when I was a child and I hate the idea of being a parent who fails to listen and doesn’t notice how her child feels. I have made an inner vow with myself to be a tuned-in parent.
One day, I’m feeling tired and stressed. I have a mountain of things to do. My child tries to tell me something important that she’s clearly upset about. Instead of listening patiently, I find myself shouting at her for interrupting me and demanding that she goes to her room.
As I see her face crumple and she turns around to walk to her room, I am overcome with remorse. I’ve just done the thing I vowed I never would. I feel so awful that I am completely paralyzed. I truly am a terrible parent.
I let my child go to her room because I don’t know what to say to make things better. I’ve blown it now! She will never trust me again. I bury myself in the work I was doing before she tried to talk to me, in an attempt to distract myself from the feelings of failure.
Meanwhile, my child spends the next hour by herself in her room. That hour of isolation is much worse than the minute I lost my temper and shouted at her. She doesn’t know how to reconnect with me and feels confused. One thing she knows for sure is that this is all her fault. If she hadn’t tried to talk to me in the first place, none of this would have happened. She makes a vow to keep her feelings to herself from now on.
This is the problem with perfectionism and the thing that makes it so different from a healthy desire to be a better parent.
At its core, perfectionism is more about ourselves and our own insecurities than it is about our child. When we feel secure enough to accept our own failures, we will be much more available emotionally for our children.
I’m not saying any of this to heap more guilt on parents who are already beating themselves up for not being good enough. I am simply saying that there is a way out of the prison of perfectionism, and that we can learn to forgive ourselves and be gracious with our own weaknesses.
Of course, I’m not talking about child abuse. If we feel that our verbal or physical behaviours towards our children threaten their emotional or physical safety, we must have the courage to be honest and face up to what’s happening. We must seek help and put supports in place to ensure that our children are safe.
What I’m talking about now are day-to-day parental slip-ups. The times we are impatient and get more angry than we want, the times we fail to listen and respond in a loving and sensitive way, the times we are inconsistent and don’t follow through on what we say.
If we can start to see these sorts of weaknesses and failures as opportunities rather than disasters, it will make an enormous difference to our own and our children’s well-being. As our children grow up, they will find themselves in many different types of relationships, and every single one of these relationships will be imperfect. Our children will find themselves making mistakes and slipping up with the people they love.
How will they deal with conflicts and mistakes in their adult relationships? They will follow the patterns that they internalized during their early years. Research shows that the vast majority of people go through their entire adult lives never deviating from the patterns of managing relationships and conflict that they learnt during childhood. While it is possible to change these patterns, it takes a great deal of insight and emotional work, and most people never even realise that they are repeating childhood patterns.
We can lay positive relationship patterns for our children that will impact their whole lives not by trying to be perfect but, rather, by modelling how to be imperfect in a healthy way. We can model how to say sorry when we make mistakes. We can model clean forgiveness without lingering grudges and moodiness. We can model open communication, discussing why a conflict happened and what we can learn from it. We can model how to express and name our feelings without any shame attached – the good, the bad and the ugly ones! We can model how to love and honour ourselves and not beat ourselves up for our own mistakes.
If every parent learnt how to be this sort of role model for their children, the world would be a very different place!