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Don't Beat Yourself Up for Not Being the Perfect Parent

Our parenting standards are unrealistic. Focus on the important things.

Key points

  • Many parents are trying to meet two incompatible standards: always being available to children and also spending quality time with children.
  • Parents should focus on what's most important instead, which includes showing children unconditional love and being emotionally predictable.
  • Children thrive when they are encouraged and expected to do their best. Parents should set reasonable but high expectations for children.

I have studied parenting on five continents for close to four decades. I'm also a mom — the mom of two sons, one of them who is very sick. I know what it is to beat yourself up about not being a perfect parent.

But too many parents beat themselves because they are trying to meet two entirely different, incompatible, and unrealistic standards.

  • Full-time homemaker: In the fantasy depiction of a time when many more women stayed home with children and did not work outside the home, mothers were always available to their children. Their primary family role was caregiving, including caring for the home, children, and other adults, as well as cooking. They were also involved in sustaining a huge network of volunteer activities and organizations, from churches, to soup kitchens, to Girl Scouts and Little League.
  • Quality time: When more women worked outside the home, many families focused on "quality time." Rather than the quantity of time mothers were available to their children as full-time homemakers, families would focus on shorter spans of focused family time — watching movies together, playing games, or other child-centered activities. Moms began to play more with their children, something that had previously been more the role of dads.

Where are we now? For many of the mothers I know, we are taking two fantasies and meshing them together. We feel we should be available to our children all the time (full-time homemaker style) while doing child-centered activities (quality time). In the meantime, we should have perfect homes and excellent, healthy meals, and engage in volunteer activities, while most of us also work outside the home.

And we beat ourselves up for doing what neither fantasy mother ever did. Full-time homemakers spent most of their time doing their job: taking care of their families. But they tended to be adult-focused, with children amusing themselves while their parents worked in the home or in the paid labor force. Quality time was defined by short periods of time where adults focused on their children. It was not expected to be something that was sustainable over the long term.

What Is Really Important to Children?

Although it's easy to beat up on ourselves for not doing everything, that doesn't make us better parents. What is most important? Where should we focus our efforts?

  • Unconditional love. Since we started studying parenting — over 100 years — the single most important factor in positive child outcomes is unconditional love. Children need to know that no matter what happens, they can trust us to have their back. To love them no matter what. To try to keep them safe. We need to be what attachment researchers call "safe havens." Places they can retreat to when they are scared or stressed or tired from their explorations and adventures.
  • Predictability. Children thrive on predictability. There is a reason Mr. Rogers and Barney are loved by children: We always know what they will do (and they exemplify unconditional love). It is easier for children to weather stressful, tumultuous, and scary times — like this last year — when they know they can count on you. This isn't just rituals like eating meals together at the same time each day. More importantly, it's your emotional predictability. Do they know how you'll react when they make a mistake? Or do well? Or do you make them anxious because sometimes you'll praise them effusively, sometimes you explode and sometimes you ignore them for exactly the same behavior. Knowing what to expect takes worry out of kids' lives.
  • Expect their best. Children thrive when they are encouraged and expected to do their best. Taking responsibility for doing chores shows them they are needed. Praising good behavior and telling them to cut it out when they are behaving badly tells them that you notice what they're doing and that you care what they're doing. We once did a study where we interviewed over 100 teens, many of whom were involved in fairly heavy drinking and substance use. When we asked them what their parents would think about it, many said "they wouldn't care." They didn't just mean they wouldn't be punished if their parents found out. They meant that their parents did not care enough about them to be upset. Setting reasonable, high expectations is one way that parents show their love.

Children grow into healthy, happy adults all over the world in many different conditions. It's a fascinating area of study. But these three things — unconditional love, predictable routines, and high expectations — seem to be pretty universal. Focus on those.