The Perfect Parent Illusion

On Mother’s Day, as I sat in church thinking about my journey as a mother (involving 3 birth kids, 7 foster kids, 2 adopted kids), I remembered the pressure I put on myself to figure out how to parent right before my first son was born. I felt confused, frustrated, and worried as I read books that seemed to contradict one another about things like handling a baby’s crying, bonding with my child, and teaching obedience. How could I do it right, if “experts” couldn’t even agree, much less the different parents and mentors in our lives. Now, don’t get me wrong—I still put plenty of pressure on myself nowadays, and parenting teenagers is a whole different ballgame, but my perspective is a little different now.

Early on, I subconsciously believed that if I could just do things perfectly as a parent, then my kids would be guaranteed to turn out great. And I also allowed the perhaps more damaging belief to creep in as well—that if I didn’t do things right, it would be “my fault” if they didn’t end up healthy, well-adjusted followers of Jesus. I think we all know that is a lie, but we still spend a lot of our time acting like it is true, and beating ourselves up for not living up to whatever we see as the standard (somewhat culturally determined, and somewhat affected by nurture, personality, faith, and our individual passions). Sometimes, people swing to the opposite extreme—they justify almost any bad parenting behavior, by just saying “well, nobody is perfect.” I have seen the result of just “not parenting,” and that is not a good option either. Our choices do affect our children, and we should strive to model a good path for them, but we also don’t and shouldn’t try to take responsibility for everything in their lives.

So how do we handle the fact that failure is everywhere, yet we still long for what is good and right, and we truly do want good for our children? It is a tension…I want the best, but I can’t even live up to it, so how can I expect my children to?

Let me share a very brief picture of my “failure is everywhere” experience by sharing two of my very recent mundane parenting fails that might feel insignificant, but are the very kinds of things that plague us. Maybe you can relate—or maybe I am just weird. First, when a certain child left her backpack out (again!) after getting home from school, despite my reminder as she walked in the door, I failed to display patience and to calmly communicate my expectation that she try again and put it away. I instead resorted to sarcasm and a demeaning comment; I felt instantly bad.  Second, when I was at a flea market, I bought shirts for two of my girls, but didn’t get one for the third girl because I wasn’t sure she would like them…but then she felt hurt, and I beat myself up for not deciding to get it for her too. I didn’t want her to feel unseen or undervalued.

I have found, through the hard knocks of parenting so far, that there is no parenting formula, but there are helpful parenting principles. One key principle for me is to both accept and live out grace and truth, with patience.  Successful parenting means that I guide my kids to value what matters most and brings true happiness—having healthy relationships with God and other people, and using what we have to be a blessing. It means that I seek to discover and live out what is right and good, actively modeling it for my children to the best of my ability, yet also modeling the practice of admitting when I am wrong and walking in humility, grace and truth. It means I help them discover the freedom of joyfully doing good in the world—not so that we can earn our place and prove we have value, but because we know that we are already secure and full relationally, with a God who accepts and loves us, and hopefully family that imperfectly roots us in unconditional love as well.

Prominently positioned in our family room, we have a poster with some of our key family principles listed. It says “In our family, we …” and lists things like “choose respect,” “learn and grow,” “obey our Lord Jesus Christ,” “are for, and not against, one another,” “admit when we are wrong,” and more.  We frequently refer to it in the midst of arguments. I confess that I don’t live up to our values in all of my actions all the time, and neither do the kids. So how do I deal with those symptoms of hypocrisy in myself? Well, I accept the truth that I missed the mark and receive the grace from the Lord that reminds me I am his beloved child. I then also seek to extend that to my kids. I have to receive God’s love to be able to offer it freely. Both wisdom and compassion and forgiveness and grace come from God and His Word, and the best way to live them out is to consider and openly talk about these truths and principles as we live life, in the midst of all of its ups and downs.  Deuteronomy 6:6-7 says “And these words that I command you shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

I want to use God’s Word as a guide, not as a cudgel.  Ephesians 6:4 “do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”  My deepest hope is not that my kids would be perfect, but that they would think rightly (about themselves, life, love, joy and hope), and that they would let it affect how they live.

So I have to parent with something better than perfection in mind. I want them seeing how I deal with my failures and disappointments. Rather than hate myself for my weaknesses and mistakes, even in my parenting, I can see those weaknesses as an opportunity to live out humility, thankfulness for God’s grace, and contentment in the midst of my struggles. I can keep going, not because I think I can achieve perfection, but because I have hope in Christ, the one who is perfect, and yet compassionate and patient with us. He loves us and gave himself for us so that we can have peace. We can taste it now, and can know we will see its true fulfillment in eternity.

I love my children. Parenting is the hardest thing I have ever done, and also the greatest gift!