It’s easy to feel bad about yourself as a parent.
“I shouldn’t have yelled at Jasper!”
“I wish I had more energy to read to them tonight.”
“I should take them to the museum or somewhere interesting … ”
Then, if we’re kind and realistic, we forgive ourselves pretty quickly. There’s lots going on in our lives: job challenges, car breakdowns, in-law visits. We can’t be “on” all the time. “I’m doing the best I can,” we say to ourselves. “It’s good enough.” Which, indeed, is usually true.
But there’s something more we need to recognize: Even if we could be perfect parents, that would not be better for our kids than being our imperfect selves. In fact, it would be worse for them. It is only when our children see us being imperfect that they learn important lessons about life and themselves.1
They learn that it is OK not to be perfect
If we were perfect parents all the time, our children would come to believe that they need to be perfect all the time. Good luck with that, kid.
When our children see our imperfections, they see us modeling the reality of life: People lose their tempers. People don’t always listen carefully to each other. People make bad choices.
How liberating and essential for our children! If they grow up thinking that people should never lose their tempers and should always listen carefully to each other and always make right choices, well, they are being set up for a big letdown.
Imagine how hard it would be for them as they grow older and become more independent. Not only would they have impossible expectations of their friends, they’d have unrealistic expectations of themselves. They would not have developed the perspective and emotional muscles they will need to forgive themselves and move on.
They learn what it feels like to be challenged
When we’re not perfect parents, our children are forced to deal. They have to figure out how to respond to our anger, distraction, or thoughtlessness.
Once, after my preschool-age child played with matches, I tried to teach her a lesson by demonstrating what fire can do: I took her outside in the dark and lit a piece of newspaper and told her: “See, this is what could happen to our house if you play with matches.”
However, I made a mistake: I didn’t consider how my child might experience the combination of my anger and anxiety together with the yellow flames. She was terrified, all right. Terrified of me.
Happily, over time, she overcame that fear of me. She figured out that I’m not such a bad guy after all. She’ll need that lesson many times in her life: Most people who scare or disappoint are worthy of forgiveness and love.
They learn how to bounce back from setbacks
Given time, my daughter overcame the fear she felt that night all by herself. I didn’t even say “sorry” to her afterwards because I didn’t realize how she had experienced the situation.
Of course, I don’t make these kind of mistakes most of the time. I’m a “good enough” parent. So she isn’t constantly being challenged by my insensitivities, only sometimes.
But the only way kids learn to bounce back from setbacks is to experience setbacks. They may need help from a parent or relative to recover more quickly. It may not be easy. However, with experience and a little support, they will learn to put distressing emotions in perspective, communicate their feelings, and maybe even help their parents calm down.
Now that they are older, my kids are a valuable source of emotional support to me when I’m dealing with tough situations. I’m grateful!
The bottom line: Parental perfection is not only impossible, it’s bad for children.
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- Thank you to Marjorie Ingall, author of Mamaleh Knows Best, for the inspiration that led me to write this piece.