Imperfect Parents in an Imperfect World

I came across this article in Slate during my morning media browse, and it struck a chord with me. Author Katie Roiphe suggests that parents who strive after the impossible goal of trying to create a perfect environment for their children might, in fact, be creating unbearable little monsters who don’t know how to cope when life doesn’t go their way.

Here’s a choice quote:

Have we done [the over-parented child] a favor by protecting him from everything, from dirt and dust and violence and sugar and boredom and egg whites and mean children who steal his plastic dinosaurs, from, in short, the everyday banging-up of the universe? The wooden toys that tastefully surround him, the all-sacrificing, well-meaning parents, with a library of books on how to make him turn out correctly— is all of it actually harming or denaturing him?

I’m inclined to agree. I’ve posted similar thoughts on how easy it is to give in to fear and/or guilt as a parent: the fear that we’re not doing enough for our kids, not reading the right books or teaching them the right things or signing them up for the right programs. Heck, if your wife doesn’t eat enough cranberries or listen to Mozart while she’s pregnant, your kid might be broken by the time he even comes out of the womb.

Our kids definitely don’t live in a perfect environment. Some days it more closely resembles a wild game preserve. In a house with four kids, two parents and one income, there are always things Shawna and I wish we could be doing more or better for our kids. We lose our tempers more than we’d like. We make do with limited resources. Gideon probably will not own a brand-new article of clothing until he’s in junior high school.

But as much as I wish I had more time, in particular, to spend with each of my kids, I think it’s probably healthy for them to realize that the entire world –and my entire world–does not revolve around them.

We had some epic battles with our oldest on the weekend along these lines. He’s a sweet, clever little boy, but sometimes he morphs into this raging narcissist who explodes when the world doesn’t bow to his every demand. It’s probably normal behaviour for a five-year-old, but  we’re trying to nip it in the bud. Being the oldest of four, he needs to learn pretty quick that he’s not the centre of the universe. He has a very defined sense of what he thinks is fair, what he thinks he deserves, but sometimes life just isn’t fair, is it?

Maybe that sounds harsh, and I’m certainly not out to squish the life out of my kids. I’m a generally optimistic person, and I want them to think they can do anything–if they work at it, and stick with it, and keep fighting when things get hard. And things will get hard, but that’s not the end of the world.

Read any fairy tale or children’s story and it’s always the kids who come out of adversity–the orphans and the neglected stepdaughters and the peasant farmboys–who are the noble, resilient heroes, while the rich kids don’t know what to do with themselves. Those are archetypes, sure, but there’s some truth in those myths. Having everything rarely leads to happiness, and it almost never leads to great character.

I love my kids and I want to do the best I can for them, but  it hurts both me and them if I strive toward some unattainable ideal of parenthood. I can’t be perfect for them and I can’t expect them to be perfect for me. There’s only so much I can control, but kids who know they’re loved for who they are –flaws and all– usually turn out all right.



2 responses to “Imperfect Parents in an Imperfect World

  1. yes! I agree with you wholeheartedly that overparenting is not doing our children much good. “Boredom,” I’ve learned, is a good thing. In fact, a great thing. It is only boredom that can lead to self-reliance and real creativity once children are past about age five. Before that, they are just BUSY creatures who could never be bored because they are interested in everything. But somewhere between five and seven, they become a bit more rational, a bit more earthly, and the tentacles of boredom can wrap themselves around their feelings. When my nine or six and a half year old say they are bored, I say, “Wonderful!” Because what happens next is up to them. Not me.

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