Story by Lindsay Smith | Photo by Lauren Jeziorski
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 Beth Miller, PCI certified parenting coach. One day, her 12-year-old son came home to tell her his bike had been stolen from outside a McDonald’s. She got angry and scolded him for being careless. After her son broke into tears and went to his room, she realized she’d made a mistake. She went to find him, apologized for her reaction, and joined him in his sadness.
In the end, there were lessons for everyone.
Miller learned to pause and connect before responding. Her son learned that adults make mistakes — and those mistakes don’t make them bad people, but they do need to be repaired. 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 Miller 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 perfect 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.
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 “an image of perfection,” Miller says.
Even if people aren’t intentionally omitting those less palatable parts of their lives, they’re just not sharing them. It can make challenges feel unique, and children are getting the same flawless views.
“On social media and television, there are beautiful people that seem to have life by the tail, so when we model imperfection in our home, we can show our kids that life can be messy,” she says.
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.
“There are parents who feel pressure that if their kids are having a tantrum or not being polite, that it’s some sort of reflection on them. There’s some sort of intertwining there that may be unrealistic,” Miller says, explaining how parents sometimes take on the actions of their child as their own, forgetting that kids are separate people on their own paths.
— 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
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 a societal value placed on overexertion and overperformance — to the point of burnout.
“Sometimes the best thing we can do is take care of ourselves,” Miller says.
Eliminate the idea of perfect
Next comes the task of crushing the idea that perfect even exists.
“There’s definitely not one right or wrong way to be a parent,” says Matthew Young, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
One indicator that there just isn’t one flawless approach? The mark keeps moving.
It shifts by family, community and generation. The parenting path is littered with signs and detours, unexpected turns and potholes. Still, parents are trying to draw a map to an impossible destination.
“If you’re expecting absolute perfection, you’re not going to attain it. Therefore, the only outcome you can attain is failure,” Young says.
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 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.
“Observing and learning from caregivers and attachment figures is the biggest source of learning for children, particularly when they’re younger,” Young explains. “If they’re not given a model for what to do when things don’t come out exactly the way they want, they could either learn that that’s an unacceptable outcome, which is unfair, or they’ll internalize those parental expectations of the outcome mattering more than the effort.”
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.
“Parents can be conscious of what their children are learning by how they respond to a child’s successes and failures,” Young says. “If parents are modeling that anything less than perfect is a failure, their children are going to have less opportunity to learn how to deal with disappointment and failure.”
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,” says Katie Kidle, licensed master’s social worker and clinical director at The Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan. 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. “It’s important not to dismiss or deny it because that leaves kids to make up their own narratives, rather than having closure and healing.”
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 we make mistakes, we rebound from them and we repair them,” Miller says, sharing the value in seeing that process at home.
The same goes for when kids see parents imperfectly in other relationships, like with their partner. 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.
The gift of watching conflict unfold is in the full cycle, from chasm to reconnection.
“There are parents who feel pressure that if their kids are having a tantrum or not being polite, that it’s some sort of reflection on them.”
No space for failure
Despite the value in imperfection, not every parent has the privilege of allowing for it.
Courtney Aldrich, program instructor of child and family development at the Michigan State University Extension, 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.”
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