It seems as if this past year has been a big one for parenting issues. We’ve read about “tiger moms” and how to bring up bébé in French style. Time dedicated a magazine cover (May 21, 2012) to the battle over attachment parenting complete with controversial photo. We seem to have become polarized as a country about the “right” way to raise our kids. People are firmly committed, even entrenched, in their ideologies, certain that if they can do it correctly, somehow they will raise the perfect child.
What exactly, though, does the perfect child look like? What is perfect parenting? Are these concepts even achievable? Parenting is not fool-proof. You cannot create a simple recipe or step-by-step instruction booklet. Different strategies will work for different parents. Different strategies may be needed for different kids in the same family. For those who turn to books and experts seeking THE answer for how to be the BEST parents, they can be left with feelings of frustration and helplessness.
There are, however, some words of wisdom that I believe can help parents raise healthy, capable, well-adjusted kids. Primarily,let go of the idea that there is one perfect way to raise kids, and try to be “good enough” parents. Do the best you can and feel good about it. Figure out what works for you and your family, and know that what works may change as your family changes. Becoming the best parent you can be requires letting go of the myth of the perfect parent. In this lies the heart of good-enough parenting.
I believe it is essential for every parent to know, accept, and even embrace the fact mistakes will be made. You will not be perfect. Your kids will find something to complain about. You will fall short of their expectations, and your own, from time to time. This is natural. This is expected. This is inevitable. This is great! Hopefully, many of these mistakes will be on the smaller end of the spectrum (forgetting to pack dessert in a lunch box, for example), but some will be bigger.
What can be damaging to kids, parents, and their relationships is not the presence of mistakes, but our intolerance for making them. What shapes our character is not our success or failure, but how we respond to each. Are we gracious when we succeed? When we fail, do we accept responsibility? Do we take steps to fix what can be fixed? Do we find new solutions? Do we learn from our experiences? Do we forgive ourselves and others?
Much of childhood and adolescence is spent testing things out. Kids try out behaviors; teens try out identities. They test their assumptions about the world. If we hold ourselves to a standard of perfection that is unattainable, that sends a message to our kids that making mistakes is not OK. This can make childhood and adolescence an even more stressful and anxiety-filled time. When kids feel there is no room for error, the pressure they place on themselves can be paralyzing and can manifest as anxiety and depression.
When we model for our kids that we try, sometimes fall flat on our faces, and get up and move forward, we help teach them resiliency. When they see us struggle and persevere, we teach them that life may not be easy, but that we have the confidence in ourselves to keep going. When we forgive ourselves and others for falling short, we teach them generosity of spirit and acceptance. When we do all of these things, we teach them that they will be loved based on who they are, not what they achieve.
So often, our striving to be “perfect” parents comes from a desire to raise kids that are harm-proof. It is natural as parents to wish to protect our children from difficulty and pain. But when we try to insulate them completely from the slings and arrows of their own outrageous fortunes, we deny them an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop the skills they need to navigate the world. By trying to protect them from pain, we unintentionally communicate to them that we don’t believe they can handle it. Eventually, they believe us. We effectively deny them the chance to develop confidence in their own abilities to handle whatever life dishes out and not only survive, but thrive in the face of adversity.
Our job as parents is not to shield them from every blow, but to be a soft place for them to land when they fall. We can teach them to strive to do their best, even when it feels really hard. We can teach them to be proud of their efforts. We can teach them to love themselves even when they fail. We can teach them that they are capable of persevering. We can teach them how to ask for help when they need it and offer it when it is needed. We can teach them self-acceptance and resiliency, but only if we practice it ourselves.
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