Perfection and Parenting

As parents we want to raise happy, successful people. While that might mean something different to everyone, I doubt that there are many of use who don’t want our children to have a ‘good’ life. Why else would we put ourselves through the sleepless nights and worry and all that poop? We are working hard, every day, to advance our little ones from helpless newborns to productive members of society. Members who can take over from us, have children of their own, and [cue Elton John] take their own place in the circle of life.

It’s fine to want good things for our kids, in fact there are probably few pursuits as worthwhile as raising the next generation. But where is the line between wanting good things, and projecting our own desires and personalities on to our kids? Most of us don’t want to give our kids with the impression that they must achieve certain things to earn our love or esteem. We want to help our kids become the adults they were meant to be, and we probably also want them to visit us at Christmas. We don’t want to leave them feeling inadequate and resentful.

I bring a whole lot of baggage to the table when I think about my children and encouraging them in their achievements. I am absolutely and completely addicted to praise. I did very well in school, and in university, too. On the whole I was always pretty well-behaved and compliant. My teachers loved me (probably because I was easy), and being the ‘good’ one became a part of my identity. Even as an adult I feel a certain thrill when I see a little red check mark beside my name, for any reason. I am good, good, good, and that’s all I want to be.

There are downsides to being eternally good, of course. I am hesitant to pursue activities that I am not naturally adept at. I have a phenomenal fear of failure. I don’t take criticism all that well. I have a false belief that if people aren’t falling all over themselves to tell me how great I am there must be something terribly wrong. What I’m saying is that I have a lot of anxiety, and I do a lot of things to prove to myself and others how good I really am.

So, when I take my 4-year-old to gymnastics class, or swim class, I have to try very hard to remove my own feelings from the situation. I sit on my hands, find something else to do like knit or read, whatever I can find to distract myself. Because my daughter does not seem to share my compulsion towards goodness. She’s not ill-behaved so much as a perfectly normal preschooler. Sometimes she wanders off, or fidgets, or doesn’t listen. If she’s at the end of a long line-up I guarantee you she will not stay in that line-up long enough to take her turn.

While I sit with the other parents some part of me is screaming, “Listen to your teacher! Be still! Don’t pick your nose! You have to be good!” And an even bigger part is screaming, “What will they think of ME?!?!” Because my need for approval apparently extends to the 16-year-old kid who isn’t able to convince my daughter to put her face in the water. I don’t want her, or the other parents, to think I’m anything less than the perfect mom with perfect children.

I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this. I listen to the other moms as they talk about how their kids are the only ones who aren’t listening, that their child is such a handful and he gets it from his father, certainly not from me. They’re giving voice to my thoughts. And the funny thing is, I know that they’re looking at my child and thinking she’s better-behaved than their kid, even as I think the same thing about their little one. Because we’re not really paying attention to what the other kids are doing we don’t see every little squirm and fidget, it’s always our own offspring who stand out in our minds.

I don’t know what the answer is. For my part I will continue to try to butt out when my presence isn’t necessary or helpful. I will try very hard not to let on how desperately I am seeking praise for myself and my kids. And I will have faith that as my children grow they will naturally have longer attention spans and be better able to listen and follow instructions. They will be able to make their way in the world, regardless of a dodgy performance at parent and tot skate. After all, there aren’t many adults who leave the bank line-up because they’re distracted by a shiny poster. I guess what I’m saying is that I will do my level best to trust and nurture my kids and keep my own issues to myself. I think maybe that’s all I can do.

And if you have any brilliant suggestions for how to encourage children in a way that isn’t overbearing I’d love to hear it. Or maybe you just have a story about how your preschooler refuses to pay attention at library story time. I’ll take that, too. 🙂

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  1. I went through something like this when Annabelle was in ballet. As much as she loves dance, the structure and expectations had by the school and teacher didn’t line up with how we are parenting. For a while, I wondered my daughter refused to listen, participate, or seemed utterly bored with the class, and I felt frustrated and sad (and embarrassed, of myself, for feeling this way about the little girl I loved so much).

    I’m not sure what our long term solution will be, but for now, we’re on hiatus from ballet class and are having more fun and seeing better behavior in her arts and gardening class. I too struggle with praise and not interfering with my daughter’s growth and learning outside of our home; I think the best thing we can do as parents is to listen to our intuition and follow the signals our children give to us.

  2. I cannot think of any stories right now but I’m sure I’ll have a lot when I put my sons through Karate class.

    I haven’t put my 4yr old in anything yet because I don’t think he’ll be able to go through the whole lesson, class or whatever.

    I guess that’s proof that we all have the same fears.

  3. Oh this resonates so much with my experience too, having to stand back and keep quiet and so on …. We’ve been having a few ‘issues’ in kindergarten about responding to structure, discipline and expectations but, with the help of a truly excellent teacher (Mrs. Myles – you’re the best!) we seem to be heading in the right direction as far as in-school behaviour is concerned. As a formerly good kid at school, my son’s disregard for authority is cringe-making and I cannot understand how he has so much forceful personality at this tender age – I certainly didn’t.
    But I do relish his confidence, it’s something I’ve struggled with thru my adult life as a hang-over from compliant childhood. Now I’m working on ways of showing him that he can respect others by listening, sharing, following instruction without losing his spirit, and trying to discover what makes him tick in a learning environment ie. what it is that motivates him to learn.
    Phew! I feel like I’m on another PhD here!

  4. We are very similar, Amber. I act the same way. As a matter of fact, I kept my children out of all activities until this week b/c I didn’t want to start the competitiveness and perfection-seeking too young. My five year old just started t-ball for the first time last night, and it went really well. It’s tough and I think it’s something we work through as our kids get older and we learn more as parents. I think you’re doing a great job, and if you’re already working on biting your tongue at swim practice, you’re a step ahead!!

  5. All you need to do is look at yourself and your sister, finding your own way and making your own decisions… in spite of all of the anxiety I felt over being a ‘good mom’. I did lose interest in worrying about what others thought of my parenting skills, though, because of something that was said to me one time at a flea market by an exhibitor. Her child was sitting in a playpen playing with toys and she noticed me carrying you. She said that if I didn’t make you walk, I’d never be able to put you down. What came to mind was you, at 16, cuddled into me as I carried you through the mall. Nope! I knew right away that these moments would not last long and I wanted to enjoy them as much as possible, regardless of what anyone else thought. And, on a related thought, I find myself feeling exactly the same way about carrying Hannah – I know she’s 4 and I know she can walk but one day soon, as the both of us get older, I won’t be able to lift her up anymore and so I bask in the moments, knowing they will end. You are doing a wonderful job, and I don’t say that just cause you asked me to but because of two little people who love you and to whom you are a very special mom. And your sister was pulled out of ballet at 2 different schools and right out of the pool at swim class and she still went on to do very well at both – when the time was right for her.

  6. I don’t have children yet, so I don’t have much insight here (but can relate to your need to be “good” and reflectance to try things i’m not naturally gifted at).

    Just wanted to say I enjoyed this post!

  7. oops, reflectance = reluctance. (one thing I’m surely not good at — spelling and typos!)

  8. I think you are right…every mom wants to be apporved of by other moms….actually….by everyone! Yesterday was one of those horrible days for us (I will blog about it tomorrow I am sure). But, while I was getting dressed to go to the library for our weekly story time, the girls broke into Mckenzi’s room and painted themselves, the walls, the bed, the carpet with her black, waterproof mascara! Needless to say, I was late getting them to the library…and I now had a load of laundry to do. We didn’t last long at the library though…about 10 minutes acutally. My temper was pretty much done after the whole mascara thing and the girls wouldn’t sit still or be quiet, so I packed them up and off we went home! They screamed the whole way home and pretty much the day was a waste. I wasn’t happy with my lack of patience and understanding and I was horrified that the moms (who seem to be very judgemental in my little town) would have one more thing to add to my seemingly growing list of horrible mom traits because my daughters couldn’t even handle a 45 minute library time….they must be ADHD or something! Today was a better day though. And I am sure next week will be just fine.

    We all have those days….except my Aunty who lives in Saskatchewan…apparently, her life is perfect all of the time.

  9. I know that it’ll be tough to not heavily encourage activities that *I* think the boys should do. It’s a balance of giving them guidance but also their own choices. Not easy!

  10. Well, I have a toddler and a preschooler and I spend my days biting my tongue to not say “no” all the time. And to ask a lot more questions than order directives. And to let my daughter FALL DOWN and get back up on her own instead of me grabbing her each time (she’s 16 months and can handle it).

    We start swimming lessons this summer… I’ll think of you. 🙂

  11. Dominique McGrady says:

    Have you read Alfie Kohn? Dominique (comox)

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