Perfectionism and Parenting

April 24, 2012

Jessie, Parenting

Parenting is just so hard (I think I could start every parenting post with that phrase).  I feel stretched to the boundaries of my limitations every day as I nurture the little lady whom God has continued to entrust to my care.  It is the most incredible gift, filled with joy indescribable, while simultaneously challenging me to the very depths of my own inadequacies, neuroses, and shortcomings.

One of my neurotic tendencies is perfectionism.  I want to do things the “right way.”  I dread error.  There are good things that can flow from such a personality: drive, responsibility, commitment, and care.  But it also carries with it diminished ability to tolerate failure, overarching dissatisfaction with myself, and a crippling that occurs when certain faults, incompetencies, and shortfalls are exposed.

Sadly, I am aware of just how much my perfectionistic inclinations are spilling into my parenting; I want to parent the “right way,” while simultaneously aware there is no such thing.  Even more detrimental is this underlying and unspoken (until now) tension I feel for my little girl to do things the “right way” too.  She’s been unable to escape that pressure.  Yet how can a child ever feel adequate under impossible standards?  How does a little person have the freedom to struggle, make mistakes, and fail when parents don’t extend the space to do so?

Although I’m acutely aware of how impossible it is for a child to live freely under such a weight, my perfectionism touches her little life daily.  I try to fight those tendencies in my parenting, but often fail miserably…therein exposing my own imperfections.  Do you see the paradox?  I desire to give Jessie the space to struggle, but I regularly fail, which triggers my own discouragement and dissatisfaction.  It’s a vicious cycle.

I was helping in Jessie’s kindergarten class the other day and she began to cry when she realized she had done the wrong side of her worksheet.  “Mommy, I haven’t done it right,” she whispered through her tears.  I calmed her down, assuring her of my love and that it is okay to make a mistake.  I wanted her to experience grace.  But my heart sank with her sadness.

At recess, I asked her teacher if she had ever responded like that in class before.

“She has never cried, but it is clear she wants so badly to do everything right,” Ms. L confirmed.  It was like looking in a mirror—a little girl desperate to do things correctly, or perfectly, but unable to measure up.

“I think that’s a problem her perfectionistic mom has created,” I lamented with a little chuckle to her teacher.

“Life’s too short for that,” her teacher replied, cutting right to the heart of the matter.

Shouldn’t I know that more than anyone?  I walked home with a pit in my stomach as I considered the manner in which I’ve already begun to pass along my twisted, perfectionistic neurosis to her little soul.  And I was beating myself up over it, upset over my failures as a parent.

Then I saw the irony.  I was feeling like my little girl who had just completed the wrong side of the worksheet. “Father, I haven’t done it right,” I whispered to God through my tears.  He calmed me down, assuring me of his love and that it is okay to make mistakes.  He wants me to know the sufficiency of his grace.

That’s what it comes down to.  Grace.

My heart needs to expand to more fully embrace my Father’s graciousness toward me; to learn to accept my own weaknesses and failings, as a person and as a parent.  And as I internalize his grace more deeply, so also might Jessie learn to do the same.

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3 Comments on “Perfectionism and Parenting”

  1. Andrea Says:

    I feel like I was given a gift by meeting my oldest brother. Not only did I get another brother but I got to see just how nature and nurture impacted him (nature a LOT, nurture a little). I realize even more that we come pre wired and a parent is working with limited resources. Our job is just to love and help them learn to maneuver the challenges in front of them. As a parent of a girl who tears up when she does something wrong, I know that hurt and desire to take away the pain. I’m trying to reframe my mind to realize its how she was created and to help her see it’s a gift God has given her. To feel so deeply will certainly be an asset in life if I allow her to embrace it. But I’m a work in progress.

  2. Anne Myerscough Says:

    Christina: I can relate to your concerns. I too pushed so much expectations on my two sons. The true and real break through, is that you/I recognised and admit our actions. So that I/we can understand and attempt to change. I now hold no expectations, and only to learn from who they are. when I did this I was amazed how much I learned from them.

  3. Michal Says:

    Yes! Christina, yes! I cried as first grader when I had to work to learn things after so much had come naturally to me in earlier years. My teacher made me dwell on the message “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” My friend framed the cover of that classic, “The Little Engine That Could”” for my 50th birthday. I relate so well to the viscious cycle you described! “Life is too short for that” but it’s such a cunning trap.

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