Like many kids, my son is a bit of a perfectionist. Not an “I always make sure my socks are organized by colour” kind of perfectionist, but more of an “If I’m going to do something it has to go exactly the way I expected it to” kind of guy. And every time things don’t go exactly the way he thought it would – whether he didn’t block a goal during a soccer game or he missed a couple of math questions on a 100-question test – I do what most parents do. I give him a hug, tell him it’s OK if everything doesn’t go the way he’d hoped and remind him that the point is to learn and to have fun.
Because it’s all about the journey, right? Of course it is. So how come when things don’t go exactly the way I expect it to – like when I leave my son’s lunch sitting in the fridge, or when I realize that he’s been five minutes late for school every day this week – I’m the first one to beat myself up over it?
Our kids aren’t perfect, and neither are we, but most of the time, our children are the only ones we let off the hook. Lucky for us, there are a few experts who are willing to help us out, including the late Bruno Bettelheim, child psychologist and author of A Good Enough Parent: A Book on Child Rearing. Bettelheim was one of the first people to champion the concept of throwing out the rulebook in favour of parenting our kids in a way that helps them become their best selves.
Although the book was published in 1988, and it reads more like a textbook than most parenting books we find on the shelves these days, its concepts have had some serious staying power. Better yet, they’ve had an influence on some of our modern parenting experts. And there are some good reasons for that.
This is something that Rene Syler, author of Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting, feels strongly about. “When you’re taking care of yourself, you’re taking care of your family. There’s nothing in the Big Book of Motherhood – which by the way, does not exist – that says you can’t tack some time to yourself onto the bottom of a very long to-do list.”
A former broadcaster who documented her own experience having a preventive mastectomy, Rene is intimately familiar with what can go wrong when you don’t take care of yourself.
“I’m tired of seeing mothers tired and burnedout. They look bad, they feel bad, they’re snapping at their kids, all because they didn’t take the time to have a cup of coffee!”
Social work professor and family therapist Michael Ungar has recently written a book called I Still Love You: Nine Things Troubled Kids Need From Their Parents. He says we all have to figure out how to deal with totally different challenges.
“Many of the parenting books out there make it seem very simple,” he says. “Like you can count 1-2-3 or practise scream-free parenting, and the problems will just go away. But the truth of the matter is, it doesn’t work like that. If your kid has nightmares and there’s nothing else going on, that’s pretty easy to deal with. But if your child has a learning disability, is being bullied, or their friends have moved away, you aren’t going to have the same kinds of challenges.”
Michael also points out that when we focus too much on the things we think we’re dong wrong, we miss out on the learning opportunities.
“We forget that the long-term vision is a healthy, robust citizen,” he says. “Children with responsibility grow up psychologically healthier. Sometimes in our failures, we give our children a chance to grow.”
Rene agrees. Recently, she’d noticed that a friend had put up a Facebook post that read, “ ‘I really like the way my household runs when I’m not there,’ said no mother ever.” Rene called her on it, pointing out that kids need to have the leeway to make mistakes. “If they oversleep and are late for school, they pay the consequences,” she says. “They’ve got to learn those things and there’s no better way than learning them firsthand.”
What’s the takeaway here? Next time you’re late coming home from work and can’t make dinner, don’t feel guilty. Order a pizza – or ask your teen to make dinner – and chalk it up to experience.
Babies don’t come with a user’s manual, so why do we expect ourselves to know everything? Rene’s experience with her first baby was similar to that of many new parents. She felt inexperienced and inadequate. She had trouble nursing and needed the help of a lactation consultant. She was tired. “But you know what I really needed? Time. I really just needed time to relax with my baby and figure out what she needed.”
We need more than time. We also have to remember that development isn’t a straight line, and we’re always going to encounter unexpected pitfalls. Michael provides a great example: If a five-year-old has an anxiety disorder, it’s pretty easy to deal with. But we have to remember that there will be lapses whenever a big change happens, such as when they start high school. We need to stop seeing them as failures. “Always expect the unexpected,” he says. “Because that’s the nature of what we are as people.”
Children pick up on so many things. From infancy, they’re more in tune with our emotions than we could ever fully understand. And, according to Michael, that’s not always a good thing. It means that your child has to deal with your emotional heavy lifting. “I’d rather less guilt, more action,” says Michael. “Do the best you can do, and have a good chuckle over what you failed at.”
Sarah Sawler is a Halifax writer and mom. With so many hats to wear, she’s mastered the art of imperfect parenting, and she’s totally OK with it. Most of the time.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2015.