In a discussion with a prominent, highly-respected clergyman about raising children, he said his position dictated that he “must be a role model for his children.” “So,” I said respectfully, “what exactly do you feel you must model for them?” Without hesitation, he replied, “How to do everything the right way.” “Hm,” I hmmed, “is that doable?” Again, quick to answer, he said, “It has to be doable.” “Uh,” I said with great hesitation, “do you feel this is a realistic picture of what it means to be a human being?” Hoping he saw a glitch in his thinking, I waited for him to say, “NO.” He said, “Yes.” More about this later.
Olivia, a mother of two little tots sounded like the perfect wife and mother every time she spoke in one of my parenting groups. Before long, her stream of parenting successes made the other mothers uneasy, resentful and intimidated. Every time I see “parenting advice” on the internet by young mothers who offer their personal opinions disguised as solutions for all children, I cringe. Blanket advice to all parents for all children is not only dangerous, but nonsensical. In one particular directive, a mother recommends hitting children under the age of two lest they reach the “Terrible Twos” and become unmanageable. However, though I just said that there is no solution for all parents, recent research shows that parents model aggression when they hit their children at any age, and the children will repeat the behavior.
Now back to the “perfect” clergyman who undoubtedly has his children’s best interest at heart, but he is not modeling everything they need to learn. They need to see parents who try their best to do what is right, and when they fail, they demonstrate how they handle failure. They need to see a parent who loses control and later apologizes and asks to be forgiven, demonstrating taking personal responsibility for their actions. They need to see their parents accept the full range of their own emotions. By accepting their emotions, their children will learn to accept their own. They need to demonstrate seeing failure as steppingstones to growth so that the children learn that crucial message. All these things children need to see.
Children need to see real human beings struggling to become better at being human so they know that being perfect is not the goal of life, but that getting better at life, inch by inch, is good enough. They need to know that they are loved and accepted and respected just as they are, for who they are, lest they give up altogether because they can’t measure up to perfect parents. Parents, your kids need to see the whole of who you are; that’s the best gift of all. Being authentic teaches them to be themselves! Imagine what a good gift that is to give.
Another offensive pattern in today’s society is some parents’ penchant to compare their children to others. Since Olivia was perfect in all ways, she held up her children as model children. They were obedient, cooperative, high-achieving, always-smiling, happy, healthy, brilliant, popular, and so on into the night. They even loved spinach. In my sixty long years of experience listening to hundreds, maybe even thousands of parents by now, and hearing their daily struggles, their exhaustion, their problems, the added burden of doing two full-time jobs as single-moms, and all of them doing the best they can under trying circumstances, it is an insult and a heartache to hear a boastful parent compare her “perfect” children to theirs. So, a word to parents who have every right to be proud of their children, be thoughtful and sensitive to those of us who also want with all our hearts to succeed. Support us in our journey.
Lastly, I have a suggestion for the perfectionists among us: Find an outlet for it. I confess, I am one and I used to hate it. It’s good for your surgeon or the man who paints your house, or the lady who irons your clothes. But many of us feel nothing is ever good enough. Woe to our spouses and children! My outlet is calligraphy in which I am in constant pursuit of the perfect letter. Where I used to want my husband or my children to do everything my way, I am much less critical of their efforts now that I am happily engaged in the perfect outlet for my perfectionism. I’m just saying . . .