PERILS OF

PERFECTION

Story By Lindsay Smith | Photo by Lauren Jeziorski
Model Bria Larine | Makeup by Ashley Valentina Hosey
The parent pressure cooker remains set on high. that’s not a good thing. Why turning it down a notch or two will ultimately help your kids thrive.

There’s an image of a perfect parent in your head. It might be standing
at center stage or hiding in the shadows, but it’s in there. It’s whispering — or shouting — to you about what the most perfect parent will do and say. Do they only buy organic and stay home doing Instagram-worthy crafts? Do they have a high-powered job and take their kids on trips to explore the world? Do they meditate and calmly redirect their child with compassion every single time they scream and hit? Your version of perfection might look different than your neighbors, but you have one.

There’s no problem with striving toward something, with working toward the best life for your kids. The problem is no one is actually perfect — not even professionals. Just ask Courtney Aldrich, program instructor of child and family development at the Michigan State University Extension.

She once promised to pick up a colleague’s child for a holiday event and didn’t realize she’d forgotten her until it was all over. Visions of the girl’s tiny tearful eyes staring out the window filled Aldrich’s head — and the girl’s dad said she wasn’t far off. Aldrich couldn’t believe she’d made such a heartbreaking error and cried tears of her own. Then she went about working to make it right. She apologized deeply and honestly to the little girl and planned a day for them to connect.

In the end, there were lessons for everyone. Aldrich learned about prioritizing her relationships and the power of forgiveness. The girl learned that adults are humans who make mistakes — and those mistakes don’t make them bad people, but they do need to be repaired. Aldrich’s children learned that their mother was flawed and saw her push herself to make amends.

This moment of imperfection was filled with hurt, yes, but it was also filled with growth — growth that can’t happen without missteps and honesty.

Stretching yourself to reach an unattainable state of perfection isn’t doing your kids any good. Want to raise confident, empathetic, resilient and authentic kids? Do what Aldrich did.

Let them see you fail.

Building a pressure cooker for parents

It’s not surprising that parents feel so much pressure. This weight is built on layers and layers of personal, familial and societal messaging. Each parent’s backpack of expectations contains different items, but there are themes that consistently show up: parent exactly how — or exactly not how — your parents did, sign your kids up for the same classes as their friends, get your kids into the right schools, make the meals you see on Instagram. There’s a never-ending deluge of suggestions about what makes for the best parent, often pulling in opposite directions.

It starts with how you decide to build your family and grows from there, with arrows shot at every choice.

“There’s so much judgment wrapped up in all these decisions,” says Julia Cohen, licensed clinical social worker and certified perinatal mental health professional who works at the Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit and Nature’s Playhouse.

This judgment spans generations, but modern parenting may be taking a harder hit. In past decades, people took parenting advice from friends, family, doctors and maybe books. Today, most parents look to the internet for guidance.

Parents have become more and more isolated. Still, they’re seeking connection — and if they can’t find it in person, they’re finding it online. This often means turning to social media, a space that rarely offers an accurate view of the full parenting spectrum.

When you’re at someone’s house for a playdate, you’ll likely see the messy living room, dishes in the sink and sibling squabbles. On social media, however, all you get is “a highlight reel of someone’s life,” says Katie Kidle, licensed master’s social worker and clinical director at The Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan. Even if people aren’t intentionally omitting those less palatable parts of their lives, they’re just not sharing them. “It can make your own challenges feel unique to you, make you feel like you’re doing something wrong,” she says. “You can only compare yourself to their performance of parenting.”

28 PERCENT

— or 3 in 10 mothers — of all mothers surveyed say they sometimes feel pressure to only post things that make them look like a good parent

SOURCE: Pew Research Center2020 study

On top of all that, many parents feel an obligation to present a “perfect” child to the world. If that child then has a tantrum in the grocery store or hits a fellow kid, on comes the shame and guilt. “Parents think that if their child misbehaves, that means they’re a bad parent, and some of that is over-identification,” says Cohen, explaining how parents sometimes take on the actions of their child as their own, forgetting that kids are separate people on their own paths.

Parenting imperfectly together

The first step in shooting down the pressure of perfectionism is recognizing that this experience is common — and growing. A recent study of young adults in the United States, Canada and Britain found that perfectionism has been on the rise, increasing over the last three decades. What feels like a personal struggle is, in fact, a community one.

Parents might be bound together in their efforts to stretch toward perfection, but they aren’t necessarily sharing how problematic that is. It can sometimes feel like a badge of honor to place yourself last as a parent.

“There’s something in our society that puts value on tiredness, exhaustion and overdoing it — on overexerting and overperforming,” says Cohen. “The mental health of parents matters too, and your mental health impacts your child. So you can do what is ‘best for your child,’ but often what’s really best for your child is actually what also works best for you, your family and your own mental health.”

Eliminate the idea of perfect

Next comes the task of crushing the idea that perfect even exists. “There’s no one right way to parent,” Aldrich says. One indicator that there just isn’t one flawless approach? The mark keeps moving.

The parenting path is littered with signs and detours, unexpected turns and potholes. Still, parents are trying to draw a map for a destination they haven’t yet discovered. “We’re taught in our culture that if you put in a certain thing, you get a certain result,” Kidle says. “That’s true sometimes, but certainly not in parenting. There are just way too many factors at play.”

Protect your parenting resources

Even if you feel strongly that you’ve somehow identified the perfect version of yourself, being that person all the time is impossible.

Posters plastered around elementary schools and offices prompt readers to try their best, but “our best is actually a very, very small portion of our day,” says Erin Hunter, clinical child psychologist and director of the University Center for the Child and the Family at the University of Michigan. “We can’t be our best all the time, because being our best requires a whole lot of resources and environmental factors.”

Hunter explains how the concept of resource budgeting — that this energy is finite and it must be allocated in particular ways — means that parents can’t always function at their highest level.

“If we’re trying to be perfect, we’re going to burn through our resources really quickly. If you run out of resources, you’re more likely to blow up or respond to your kid in a way you don’t want to,” she explains. Once that happens, you’ve now multiplied the challenge. You now need to clean up the spilled milk and apologize for snapping.

Efforts to reach perfection take so much energy, you’ll have little left to manage the more important aspects of parenting — and you’ll miss the chance to teach your kid about recognizing their own limitations.

The developmental magic in mistakes

No amount of attempted perfection will provide a pass from life’s problems — and kids aren’t born knowing how to solve them.

“We have to intentionally teach children how to solve problems, and one of the best ways to teach children how to solve problems is to have them see what happens when we face a challenge or when things don’t go the way we expected, when we say the wrong thing or make a mistake,” Aldrich says.

“They need to watch us work through that process.”

Without seeing their parents navigate life’s complications, kids just don’t gain the tools to manage the challenges that will inevitably come for them. They need to see you get frustrated, slam the car door, take a deep breath, apologize for yelling and come up with a new plan.

“If kids have that model, their feelings are validated. They know what it looks like to say sorry. They know what it looks like to be compassionate and empathetic,” Kidle says. “If they’ve had that experience of someone showing that to them, then they already know how that feels. They’re more likely to extend that to other people in different relationships outside the family — and to themselves.”

Rupture and repair

The root of all this striving for perfection rests on something fundamentally good: parents want to do their very best for their kids. The “best” that kids actually need, though, is a strong, real connection — and that requires some conflict and discomfort. “In order to form authentic relationships, we have to have ruptures,” Kidle says. These disruptions and disagreements will inevitably bubble up between anyone close, including between parents and children.

With rupture, however, must come repair.

“That doesn’t mean that you do whatever your kid wants. It means you hold your boundary and their feelings. It means you’re able to come back together after the event and talk about what happened,” Kidle explains.

Parents might not address the rupture because their own parents didn’t, they don’t have the tools or they feel too much shame and guilt. They might just want to let the moment pass. Still, it’s important to show kids that it’s OK to make a mistake, and it’s OK to acknowledge it. This teaches kids that they are also allowed to make mistakes and that when they do, they aren’t bad people. “When parents don’t feel safe enough to acknowledge a mistake,” she says, “then kids don’t feel safe.”

“There’s something in our society that puts value on tiredness, exhaustion and overdoing it — on overexerting and overperforming.”

-Julia Cohen

The same goes for when kids see parents imperfectly in other relationships. If they watch an argument between their parents but see no resolution, they’re left to create their own narrative and might blame themselves. “That can lead to inward blaming, because, developmentally, kids assume everything is about them,” Kidle says.

No space for failure

Despite the value in imperfection, not every parent has the privilege of allowing for it. Aldrich explains that parents who have been pressured and targeted by the systemic racism pervasive in our society and government often push back on her suggestions that they allow themselves and their kids to enter the world imperfectly. “It’s easy for me to say to let your child leave the house with their pants on backward, but we need to acknowledge that we have different lived experiences,” she says.

For these parents, there’s a rightful fear that any missteps are being watched and monitored, which shrinks pressured parents away from allowing normal, human mistakes. “These parents are doing what they know they have to do to cope and survive in our society,” she explains, but there’s still room for the lesson-learning and strength-building that comes from seeing failure, they may just have to have those conversations away from scrutiny.

“There are still plenty of spaces where they can teach their children about problem-solving and being authentically human.”

Authenticity through example

In a world of perfectly crafted social posts, it’s easy to rely on a perceived blueprint for what a perfect family — and a perfect parent — looks like. “The average family apparently has 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. No one has half a kid. It’s an illusion,” Hunter says. In reality, she explains, “the best gift to give ourselves as parents and our kids is to let everyone be who they are and not try to be someone else.”

Children are in the process of figuring out who they are, and they need space to work through that process. By living in that space of discovery and forgiveness themselves, parents can show kids that there’s safety in that journey. They can show kids that mistakes are bound to rise up and that working through those tough moments is just part of being human.

Aldrich says, “We need to send that message to our kids — that they’re enough. Their flawed selves are enough. And we can’t do that if we don’t actually believe it about ourselves.”

Do you feel pressure to be perfect? Take our poll.

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