“My daughter keeps hitting her brother,” Eleanor* told me recently. “It doesn’t matter what I say to her, or how I punish her, she keeps doing it. What’s wrong with her? I keep reading about how to parent a problematic child, but nothing that I’m doing seems to work. What’s wrong with me?”
“My son is a genius,” said Max* proudly. “I’m worried that my wife and I won’t be able to keep up with him. I don’t know how you bring up a genius. We’re reading all of these books about it, but they all say something different, and most of them just terrify us. What happens to our child if we can’t be the kinds of parents they say you have to be to have a healthy, well-adjusted brilliant child?”
“My 27-year-old daughter is so anxious,” said Ingrid*. “I don’t know what I did wrong. I mean, my mother made me into a nervous wreck. I tried to do everything I could to not do to her what she did to me. So what’s the problem?”
In her humorous book about parenting, How to Raise Perfectly Imperfect Kids and Be OK with It, humorist Lisa Sugarman tells parents that it’s okay not to be a perfect parent or to have perfect kids. In fact, it’s better than okay; it’s human.
But parents today seem to think that the only thing that will prove that we’re good, or successful, or even acceptable human beings is to produce children who, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, are all above average – or even better.
Just how we raise such stellar children, however, seems to have everyone guessing. But a better question, according to developmental specialists and happiness researchers, is whether having above average children is even a worthy goal.
According to Christine Carter, a sociologist and Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and the author of books including Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, researchers have found that children whose parents who are generally “warm and loving, but also good at setting and enforcing limits—are better adjusted and more academically successful than those of overly permissive or superstrict parents.”
These parents are, perhaps, close to the kind of parent that the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called “good enough.” Winnicott believed that not only was it impossible for a parent to be perfect, but also that it was unhealthy for a child when a parent tried to be perfect. Good enough, he suggested, gives a child an opportunity to deal with real life. If a parent has flaws, then a child learns how to live with and adjust to imperfections – which is good, since every human and every experience in life is less than perfect.
A good enough parent also helps a child learn to deal with her or his own imperfections – which is also important, since no child is perfect and the goal of developing into a perfect adult is unrealistic and can only lead to massive disappointment.
As Carter points out, accepting our own and our children’s imperfections doesn’t mean giving up the process of improving ourselves or helping our children attain their (not our) life goals. But this acceptance of “flawedness” can lead to a different attitude toward the process of growing up, and in fact to the process of life itself.
Understanding that life is all about a process, not an end goal, is one of the keys to happiness, satisfaction, and ultimate success. Recent research into happiness suggests that success is not necessarily a question of accomplishment, but more a sense of having lived in a way that you feel good about. Laurie Santos, the Yale University professor whose course on happiness has become a world-wide phenomenon, says that happiness has nothing to do with material accomplishments and everything to do with how we think about things: our mindset.
In her audiobook The Gift of Imperfect Parenting, author and inspirational speaker Brené Brown says, "It's actually our ability to embrace imperfection that will help us teach our children to have the courage to be authentic, the compassion to love themselves and others, and the sense of connection that gives true purpose and meaning to life."
Embracing imperfection doesn’t mean encouraging laziness or refusing to set limits with children. It does mean that parents understand that neither they nor their children need to be perfect in order to have a satisfying, meaningful life.
Eleanor*, for instance, needs to find ways to set clear limits with realistic and consistent consequences for her daughter, to help her stop hitting her little brother. On the other hand, she also needs to get to the heart of the problem of why the physical battles are happening, and she needs to help both children learn better ways of resolving conflict. But Eleanor will also need to understand that whatever she does, she will not have perfectly behaved children with no stress or conflict.
Max*, on the other hand, will need help remembering that his son will need to learn many things in life. One of my own mentors, a kindergarten teacher I assisted while I was trying to decide what to do with my life, once told me that children like to learn. “What’s really important is not the intellectual stuff,” she said. “It’s developing social skills and understanding how to make meaningful connections with other people that kids usually need help with.”
Another lesson for Max* came when his second child was born. To his surprise, he was as proud of this youngster as he was of his first, even though, as he told me, “this one’s no genius.” He was also equally worried about being a good father. “I guess the reality is that every kid has strengths and weaknesses,” he said, "and a parent’s job is to help them live a satisfying and meaningful life with all their perfections and imperfections.”
Ingrid*, too, had to find a way to manage not only her own and her daughter’s flaws, but her mother’s as well. None of them were perfect. But, as she gradually began to understand, all of them had tried their best.
The character Yoda, from Star Wars, says that there’s no such thing as trying – either you do something or you don’t. But in parenting it’s the exact opposite: We never get it completely right, but our job is to keep trying, and to remember that our kids will never get things exactly right, either. They, like us, are simply never going to be perfect. But the truth is, they shouldn’t be perfect. Imperfect is the best – and really, the only – way to be human.
* names and identifying information changed to protect privacy