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Perfect Parenting? Give It Up

In parenting, the perfect can get in the way of the good.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

In my discussions with hundreds of the oldest Americans about their parenting advice, I became aware of an underlying message. From their vantage point of looking back over a half-century or more of family life, the elders ask us to resist one of the cardinal temptations of American parents — the search for perfection — both in our children and in our own parenting.

Logically, most of us recognize the futility of creating perfect children. Indeed, these days the “quest for the perfect child” has come to include the specter of using genetic techniques to craft flawless offspring. However, centuries of parenting experience show the futility of that idea: As soon as we subject this hypothetical engineered child to the vagaries of family life — our inevitable imperfections and mistakes, and the barely controllable environments created by siblings — all bets are off.

And yet...most parents hold themselves up to some kind of perfect standard when they evaluate their parenting. “If only,” they say, “I had encouraged Johnny more with music, he would have used his talents.” “If only I had provided more opportunities for Mary to play with other children, she wouldn’t be so shy.” Of course many of the “if only’s” work two ways: “If only I had pushed Jimmy harder with his studies, he would have done better in school” can ring just as true as “If only I hadn’t pushed Jimmy so hard, he would have done better in school.”

We hold children to impossible standards, comparing them to idealized well-behaved, hard-working youngsters who exist in our imaginations alone. It has become a cliché — the child who is shuttled from dance class to language class to volunteer job and needs a (parental) scheduler similar to that required by a corporate CEO. Most of us have also seen the less-than-gifted B student whose parents insist on testing to show a “learning disability,” the expensive individual coaching for the kid who doesn’t make the soccer team, and the costly summer enrichment courses that fill the dormitories and coffers of universities each summer.

The elders' response to this pressure allows you to breathe a sigh of relief because they will be the first to tell you: No one has perfect children. They admit it: All of their kids had at least some difficulty, a flaw, a period of unhappiness, a major wrong turn. The reassuring thing is that most of their kids still turned out pretty well. The message is clear: Abandon all thoughts of raising the “perfect child” or being the perfect parent, and do it as early as possible. This echoes the pioneering child psychologist David Winnicott, who assured mothers and fathers that what they should aspire to is “good-enough parenting.” We can’t be perfect, but we can be “good enough” to raise decent, loving children.

Gertrude Towers, age 80, told me:

"Well, it’s funny because we brought up our children in the time of Dr. Spock. That was a household book that you went to, to find out what we were doing wrong or doing right. We were going to have perfect children, and we were going to be perfect parents. It doesn’t work that way."

Being a good-enough parent means allowing kids to fail. When asked about raising children, Lenore Fruchter’s first words are: “It’s a hard job.” This doesn’t mean that Fruchter, 78, didn’t enjoy raising her three children. It simply acknowledges that many challenges arise over the course of parenting. She has thought a great deal about children and child rearing, having worked as a teacher and a children’s book author. Her message: Abandon the quest for the perfect child and let them learn from what they do wrong.

"My husband and I have the same attitude about our kids: We put them in situations where they could make decisions, and they didn’t always make the right ones, but they learned from their mistakes, and that’s important. If you never make a mistake, you never know there’s a right or a wrong way to do things. It may not be always be for the best, but you learn how to deal with difficulties.

"I remember once saying to my son, 'I wonder what you kids would’ve done if we had been different as parents, like parents who pushed their kids into a particular college and ran their lives.' He looked at me in total surprise and said, 'Look, we’ve all gone to college, we all have good jobs, we have jobs that are not hurting anyone, and we’re not in jail, and we’re done with the drug scene. What else would you have wanted from us?'

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"And I said, 'You’re right, I don’t want anything else from you.' Pushing for perfection doesn’t work, in my experience."

The elders tell you that you can lighten up regarding your children: Relax your expectations, and assume that failure is inevitable at times. It’s dealing with problems in a supportive way that counts, not an ideal of perfection. Allow this accumulated elder wisdom to give you permission to give up perfection in exchange for being “good enough.” Parenting doesn't require perfection — just openness, the ability to listen, and good intentions. And those are qualities all parents can develop.

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