15 October 2007

Parenting perfection

“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?”

Robert Browning

The recent Venus retrograde (reexamining values) has resulted in a lot of people questioning the things that matter most to them.

In many of the blogs I read, I have read the concerns of conscientious parents beating themselves up for being human. It's better than some of the alternatives, I suppose. The papers are full of stories of parents who if nature were just, would have been barren. But it's so sad to see good, caring parents struggling with an image of perfection they think they have to emulate to be 'good enough'.

Having born my first child 34 years ago, I have had a lot of time to ask myself what parenting means and what makes a good (or good enough) parent.

In my 20s and 30, I think I suffered the twin errors of holding myself to too high a standard and the complete inability to see where I was really making a mess. That's not unusual, I think. In my late thirties and my forties, when TJ and Corey were teenagers and young adults, I had time and experience to really think about what I had tried to accomplish, where I thought it had gone well and where it had failed disastrously. I was very hard on myself for the things that had gone badly and blamed myself for their having such hard teen years. Some of it truly was the result of the way I parented them, some wasn't. In the end, I am extremely proud of the men they have grown into. They didn't make the choices I might have wished for them -- but they are good men, contributing to their communities and very caring of their children and elders.

A few years ago, of course, I had the unexpectedly luxury of Jack's arrival and a chance to try again. That set off all the questions about parenting and how I approach it again.

I've come to some conclusions that would have startled and maybe even angered my younger self. There are ideals I cherished deeply at the age of 20 that I have rethought. There are things I was adamant about with TJ and Corey that I am doing very differently with Jack and would do over again for my older boys if I could.

As an example, I wanted to believe that if we are gently raised and trusted and treated well,we will grow into gentle, conscientious, trustworthy people. In the end, that seems to have been true. But it made for some very, very hard years with ill-mannered children in between as the kids took their cues from other kids, since I wasn't providing much explicit guidance.

While I still believe that it is important for everyone to take responsibility for their actions rather than just following authority in sheep-like submission, I have come to have more respect for the important of teaching children manners and interpersonal respect and then expecting them to show good manners and respect. I still believe that respect is something that must be earned rather than being granted because we demand it -- but I have come to realize that young children don't have to experience with which to question authority. First they have to be taught how to show respect, then later, as they develop more intellectual sophistication and acquire more experience with which to judge whether or not someone has earned respect, they can be taught the importance of being responsible for their own actions, regardless of who told them to do what. Eventually they will understand not only that it is important to question authority when it's in conflict with their own sense of right and wrong, they will know why it is important. That's a subtle difference that was lost on my 21 year old self.

There is one thing I am, unfortunately, doing very much the same with Jack as I did with his older brothers. It's a flaw of mine that I am not proud of and I do my best to overcome it -- but unlike in my youth, I have decided not to beat myself up over it. Oddly, accepting it has made it somewhat easier to control; but so has the support of a good, strong partner.

I am cranky.

I try very hard to be patient and kind and tolerant, but some times that it is simply beyond me. I open my mouth and out comes something I instantly regret. Perhaps it's partly a matter of having grown up with parent who had six children in their first five years of marriage -- my parents were overwhelmed and they yelled. I don't blame them -- two children nearly drove me around the bend! I think they're heroes because they got us all to adulthood intact and we all turned out to be self-supporting and reasonably sane. (I was their close call, but I think I acquired a sufficient ability to pass for sane, anyway.)

But, I also grew up to be a yeller.

What's worse, I sometimes yell when it's not even really warranted. It's bizarre, really. Some days I can be patient in the face of great frustration and really naughty behavior. Other days, a minor oops will set me off. I don't really know what the difference is, and I strive to be patient and pleasant always...but the reality is, sometimes the best I can do is notice quickly that I'm being horrible and stop and apologize.

I used to blame it on the children's behavior -- and then one day I couldn't anymore. I began to see that my temper tantrums didn't have all that much to do with the children's behavior. Then I beat myself up and felt like a horrible mother. I did the best I could, and I tried always to stop and apologize when i caught myself...but the guilt was immense.

I guess it went ok. I think the older boys have survive my moodiness and still know how deeply I love them. Sadly, I see that my oldest has inherited the family moodiness and is also prone to being cranky with his children -- but they don't seem to doubt his love either, so I guess they'll survive.

And that brings me to a very important point. I say it a lot when discussing parenting.

The one quality every parent on the planet has in common is that we are all human. We have different flaws, but we all have flaws -- we are inherently incapable of perfection.

So ... we can't be perfect. We just can't. It can't be done. If we were capable of perfection, we wouldn't need to be here. We'd be wearing ethereal wings or (not?) experiencing nirvana or something.

Shouldn't we try? Well sure we should. (See the Browning quote in the title of this post.)

Even more important, we should realize that human children weren't meant to be raised by robots or saints. Sure, it models how to be a saint or a robot, and they get only the best modeling.

...or do they? (This one dawned on me after living with a couple of people who had elders who modeled something so far beyond their ability to attain that they gave up and didn't try to do anything -- fifty year olds who had never held a real job and had no goals.)

One of the things that spurs us on to greater heights is the strengths we learn from our parents. Another is the urge to do better at the things at which they weren't as successful. Which of us didn't get a charge the first time we beat Dad at chess, baked something Mom said was "too hard" and had it come out right, or in some other way went our parents one better? What if your kids didn't think they could do you one better at something worthwhile? What if your example was so unattainably perfect at every turn that they couldn't touch it in their wildest dreams? Would you really want to do that to your kids? Granted, none of us is in any real danger of perfection, so this isn't counsel to relax and stop trying, it's just another way of looking at the inevitable mistakes we make.

We can use them to model for our children how to cope with the flaws that they, too, will inevitably have. We can't work on what we daren't look at or admit to. When we screw up, perhaps we are actually teaching our children valuable lessons on humility, on persistence, and on forgiveness.

We have to be prepared to admit to our children that we make mistakes, we must be prepared to apologize to them, we must hear them when they have a complaint about the way we're behaving, because sometimes it will be whining, but sometimes their complaint will be warranted.

Oddly, children seem to take it a lot better to be told they're 'out of luck' when they're being whiny because life isn't fair if they also know that when we're wrong, we can admit it. They are also quicker to admit to having made a mistake if they've seen us model how to own up to a mistake and seen that the world doesn't end.

It's been very empowering to look at my flaws as yet another parenting tool. When I snap at Jack for being four, I haven't failed. I have been presented with another opportunity to model how to be a good person. Funny thing...Jack has started to hug me when I apologize and say "it's OK, Mamma". And he has started to apologize without being prompted when he does something naughty .

Now I wish I could go back and do it again -- TJ and Corey deserved a lot more than they got from me. I had a tool I didn't even know about.


  1. That was really beautiful, and I especially enjoyed reading it. Thanks for posting it!


  2. Thanks, Valerie. It's been on my mind for months -- I'm glad you enjoyed reading it!!

  3. Wow!! Powerful Misti ... I too have deep regrets about my parenting and I have sat my kids down, (29, 25 & 19)& apologised for wheost!re I thought I went wrong. I was most pleasantly surprised with thier reaction. They all said "they knew I loved them dearly & would do anything for them" despite my cleanliness obsession and also being a yeller. I too, was striving for perfection, but the price I paid was too high, precious time with my babies lost.
    All I can say is "I did what I knew how to do, but now I know better, I will do better". I think my grandchildren are definately benefiting.
    Thank you so much for sharing Misti.
    All the best, Tracey

  4. Thanks, Tracey!

    I think we all have regrets...it's the nature of the beast. :p If they know how deeply they're loved, and can afford their own counseling, they'll be OK. ;)


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