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The Perfect Parent is Imperfect

by Cécile David-Weill, author of Parents Under the Influence: Words of Wisdom from a Former Bad Mother, recently published by Other Press

As parents, we often pretend to be perfect in the hopes of becoming so. But in reality, the quest for parental perfection not only makes us utterly self-centered, it also causes us to feel endlessly inadequate, guilty, and miserable. For your children’s sake, keep reading.

** Stop pretending. Be real **

As a young mother, I believed I had to perform the “good mother” role and hide all of my struggles and complex emotions from my children. I was confident that this approach would give them the stability and sense of safety that they needed. 

What I did not realize was that, far from being convinced and reassured by this superficial and bogus performance, my children could tell that something didn’t feel right—and instead it made them very anxious. 

Children can sense things—in a deep and visceral way.  It is unrealistic to think that we can really hide anything from them, and it is a mistake to think we are protecting them by doing so.

Indeed, when our children sense that we are pretending that everything is fine while it is not, they believe they are the ones responsible for our uneasiness, and that they should try to fix it. That is why age-appropriate sentences such as “Mummy gets sad sometimes” or “Your mother and I are angry with each other right now” can help put children at ease by confirming what they are already sensing, and also letting them off the hook.

In fact, being real with our children has only upsides. By treating them as valid interlocutors, we demonstrate that we value and trust them, which gives them a sense of pride. Moreover, not having to put on an act allows us to relax and makes it possible for us to actually enjoy being with our children. It is crucial for children to perceive that they bring joy to their parents, because they draw from it the feeling of being a blessing, a gift, a wonder in their eyes. This will build their self-confidence, whereas they will have the impression that they are worthless if they feel they are a source of stress, fatigue, or boredom.

  • More isn’t better; on the contrary.

Our modern obsession with perfection is also reflected in our parenting. 

We are made to believe that the more we plan and do for our children, the happier and the more fulfilled they will become. As a result, we end up choosing quantity over quality, and taking on too much.

Caring for our children doesn’t mean overbooking them. Whose interests do we really have in mind when we sign them up for a trillion activities back to back—soccer, karate, dance, language, tutoring?

Could it be a way for busy or self-absorbed parents to justify avoiding spending time with their children, free of guilt? Or could it be that some of us are so worried about doing a good job that we convince ourselves that we are providing them every possible opportunity?

In either case, the result is the same: we fulfill our own needs without taking into account our children’s desires and their need to develop their own identities at their own pace. Contrary to what we have always been told, it is far easier—selfishly so—to use our power of suggestion to influence our children by shaping their aptitudes rather than to listen and respond to the needs they actually express.

There is nothing quite like boredom for a child’s development. It motivates and drives them to build themselves as individuals, find their own path, and express their character. Therefore, it is essential that we give our children the space and time to do just that. Otherwise they are molded by our desires, not their own.

  • Step back and trust.

 We as parents convince ourselves that it is our responsibility to infuse our children with happiness and self-esteem, and to smooth their way towards academic success.  I know I was. I used to have a ‘cheerleader approach’ with my children because I thought it was vital to their personal confidence.  In reality, it was a coping mechanism to brush aside my own anxiety about their potential pains or failures.   

It took me a long time to understand that in fact, this approach created the exact opposite of the desired result.  My precautionary enthusiasm stood in the way of my feeling genuine enthusiasm. In addition, my constant nervous cheering — “you’re fantastic,” “you can do it”— had the double disadvantage of failing to convince them and preventing me from seeing them clearly and without preconception.  Taking a backseat would have enabled me to see their weaknesses, but also their strengths.

Letting my children make their own way would have allowed me to watch them overcome their difficulties, giving me fuller confidence in them. Instead, I got caught up in a spiral of manufactured kindnesses, based on the unconscious conviction that my children were incapable of coping without me. 

So, there I was, experiencing my very own Felicity Huffman Syndrome.

The TV-star took control of the academic success of her daughter into her own hands. By doing so, she not only broke the law, but also sent her daughter the message that she believed that she was incapable of succeeding by herself.

She obviously went too far, but she is not the only one who has mistaken parental control for true care.

Many of us see ‘doing things’ for our children as positive behavior, and view as negligence a parent’s withdrawal from their children’s lives. But when we intervene and say, “Don’t worry, I’m here, I’ll get you out of the mess you got yourself into,” we reassure only ourselves by strengthening our power as the parent—to the detriment of our children. We prevent them from getting out of sticky situations on their own and potentially succeeding at something difficult, which would teach them to rely on themselves before relying on us. If only we would relinquish our own selfish need for parental control, it would empower our children, allowing them to feel capable of taking charge of their lives.

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