“Plan the ultimate vacation!”
“Throw the best party ever!”
“Find the ideal gift!”
This pursuit of parental excellence can start innocently. You bring home your sweet, cuddly baby. You do everything you can to learn your new arrival’s cues – when he needs food, when he needs to be held, or when he needs to go to sleep. And your reward? A baby peacefully sleeping in your arms, and, as time goes by, a big toothless grin.
The more you do, the better you meet the baby’s needs and the more coos and giggles that fill your house. You are off to a good start.
However, this instinct can go into overdrive and soon you may be doing everything in your power to keep your children happy. You don’t want them to feel sad, disappointed, or frustrated. What began with good intentions can grow into something more insidious as you deny your children the opportunities to experience life – both the good and the bad.
But beyond being elusive, should being a perfect parent even be a goal? Current thinking answers this question with an unqualified “no!”
Children actually thrive best when parents are less than perfect.
The Good Enough Parent
D.W. Winnicott, a noted pediatrician and psychoanalyst, suggests that children turn out best with “good enough” mothers (and fathers) who do not strive for perfection, but rather provide an “adequate environment.” By not making your children’s world ideal, you allow them to:
- learn that they are not fragile,
- overcome obstacles,
- learn from mistakes,
- solve problems,
- and bounce back from adversity.
And while you do not try to harm your children intentionally, you do not need to over-protect them from life’s inevitable challenges. You would not purposefully tell a classmate not to invite your child to a party, but when she is excluded, you can:
- listen to her sad feelings,
- encourage her not to take it personally,
- help her to find something else to do,
- and discuss what constitutes being and having a good friend.
These lessons occur only if you allow your children the opportunity to experience disappointments or to make mistakes. The only way your children have that freedom to learn life’s lessons is if you are not “perfect.” And through modeling, you show them that they don’t have to be perfect either.
Much of parenting has to do with balancing, and your goal is to find the right point on the continuum between trying to be perfect and not caring enough.
- At times, you may feel that you are too lax and are giving too much freedom. As a “good enough” parent, you can look at those times as opportunities for your children to learn to be independent.
- Conversely, there are times when you may worry that you are too involved. These moments provide your children with chances to hone their communication and negotiating skills as they push back on you.
How You Spend Your Time
As you give yourself permission to be less than perfect, you can find the job of parenting to be more relaxing and fun. But how do you know that you are on the right track?
Susan Stiffelman, author of Parenting Without Power Struggles, suggests that parents categorize all of their activities into the following table to help them decide where to place their efforts:
I(ie: comforting a hurt child)
|II (ie: reading books to your child)|
III(ie: buying more milk)
|IV (ie: cleaning finger prints off of the glass door)|
Her contention is that moms and dads, in trying to be the best possible parents, are putting too much of their energy into the incorrect quadrant, namely into activities that are both non-urgent and unimportant. Going counterclockwise around the chart:
Quadrant I – Urgent and important
Items in this category usually gets your attention and necessarily so. You need to care for a hurt child and protect him from dangerous situations.
Quadrant III – Urgent but unimportant
Similarly, a certain amount of your energy needs to go into those urgent but unimportant activities. Running out of milk, especially if your children are accustomed to having a bowl of cereal in the morning, may constitute an urgent matter in your household. Perhaps not life or death, but certainly a factor that may impact the quality of your day.
Quadrant IV – Not urgent and not important
Too much time is often spent in this non-urgent and not important sector. Yes, a clean house or well-dressed children account for those things by which the outside world can quickly judge the quality of your parenting; however, they are not the things that matter in order to raise children who feel cared for and loved.
Quadrant II – Not-urgent but important
This area often does not get enough attention. You may be so busy with the other activities that you neglect the small moments of connection with your children. Cuddling and reading a book together, listening to the highlights and low moments of their days, or taking the time to cut the crust off their sandwich if that is important to them is where much of the important part of parenting occurs.
As Stiffelman says, Quadrant II includes “what really matters – which is staying lovingly connected to our kids, and creating a climate of enjoyment and love in our homes.” This often happens in the small interactions of everyday life that you have with your children.
Stop and take a look at how you spend your days. Give yourself time to attend to those non-urgent but important activities that include spending time connecting with your kids. Realize that you do not have to be the perfect parent to raise happy, competent, resilient children. In fact, you are more likely to do so if you are less than perfect. And you may have more fun in the process.
By Deb Cohen, Certified Parenting Educator
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