By definition, humans are imperfect. Each person has strength and weakness, darkness and light. So why then as parents is there an expectation that we be “perfect”? Looking a little closer, where is the expectation really coming from? More than likely, the most pressure to be a perfect parent comes from within and comes from a place of love. Did I tell them too much? Am I too strict? (Should I be more strict?) Do they feel enough love? Are they going to succeed?
In his classic book on parenting titled A Good Enough Parent, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, known for his own work in treating and educating emotionally disturbed children, shared a core belief based on the work of pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. The concept was that children don’t need perfection to succeed, so long as we avoid harming them. Bettelheim writes:
“In order to raise a child well one ought not to try to be a perfect parent, as much as one should not expect one’s child to be, or to become, a perfect individual. Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings. Efforts to attain it typically interfere with that lenient response to the imperfections of others, including those of one’s child, which alone make good human relations possible.”
One of the most difficult parts about perfection is that each deviation from the perfect ideal becomes magnified. The time you raised your voice or were late picking up your child from school has the potential to feel like a major transgression and an unreasonable representation of you as a whole parent. To Bettelheim’s point, imperfection is what makes us unique, what makes us human and what makes connection possible. It is our very imperfections that enable us to seek support, to model that in challenge there is an opportunity for success and to show our kids how to grow. Maybe the beauty in parenting and in being the imperfect parent lies in our ability to show our children how to handle difficult moments and model realistic expectations for leading a human life.
The reality is that of course you want your child to feel loved, of course you want to say the right thing and of course we all want to guide our children toward the path that will lead to them growing to their fullest and happiest potential.
Try these three tips for letting go and being at peace with being an imperfect parent:
1. Forgive yourself. Forgive the time you forgot your child’s lunch, when you didn’t know what to say, when you yelled. Forgive yourself for being human and allow yourself to be open to growth every day. Without darkness there can be no light. Without struggle there can be no success and with every imperfect mistake you make you’re learning to be a better parent.
2. Let go. Let go of the things you cannot control. Enter each day knowing that you can only control some part of your child’s experience. Remember, your child will also make mistakes. Teach your child how to respond to the curves in the road and support her or him in learning how to trust intuition and make a thoughtful choice. By modeling letting go and imparting the wisdom that we cannot control the behavior of others, we are setting our kids up on a path to less anxiety and feeling more confident.
3. Live in the moment. Plan for the future and live in the moment-—you need both! Provide guidance, nurturance, love and compassion. Play with your child, look directly into your child’s eyes, listen and be present every day. Be present every day even if it’s for shorter than you might like or not as your very best self. A child who feels securely connected to the parent is more stable in the present and better able to plan for the future.
Be confident that your imperfect parenting doesn’t mean your child won’t succeed. Know that you will make mistakes and that your child will as well. Trust that loving your child, empathizing, and supporting their decisions will help create the foundation your child needs to continue to grow. Good parenting doesn’t mean giving your child a perfect life but teaching her how to live a happy and fulfilled life in an imperfect world. To all the imperfect parents, I salute you, for there is no harder job!