Three Effective Habits of Highly Imperfect Parents
I have a confession to make. It may come as a surprise to many but I feel the need to come clean. I’m not a perfect parent. There…I said it! Now that your jaw is on the floor, perhaps I should confess everything else. Sometimes I:
- Ignore my children when they are talking to me
- Raise my voice
- Demand that they start acting like adults
- Just want to be left alone
- Feel tempted to let my wife be the bad guy
- Interrupt my children
- Declare a national parents-only holiday the first day of school
- , Etc., ad infinitum
Pretty sorry parent, huh! But you know something interesting? Despite my imperfections, my children are quick to forgive, give hugs, and even want to hang out with me. They put up with my bouts of grumpiness and flash their heart-melting smile that is magnetically contagious. Who can resist such a toothy grin! Children and teens are simply amazing and inspiring.
So, here’s to you my fellow imperfect parents. You who spend your days washing clothes, taxiing to sporting events, cleaning rooms (one layer at a time), making meals, doing homework, listening to and consoling problems, worries, and fears. You are magnificent!
I hope you realize that one of the primal myths of parenting is this: perfect parents exist. Save yourselves some sleep and stress and bury that notion without a grave marker. Despite this fact, however, all too often we find ourselves believing in another damaging, self-depreciating myth that goes something like this: “As an imperfect parent, I will never be effective in raising my children. I just don’t have what it takes! If only I were like Peter Perfect and Fiona Flawless down the street!” What an awful thing to say! The problem is that the more you think, the more you believe, and the more you believe, the more you become. The psalmist of the Holy Bible captures this principle very well: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Psalms 23:7). The famous philosopher Aristotle put it this way, “We are what we repeatedly do.” I would also include the verb “think”.
This article is for you, the average, imperfect parent who is trying to do your very best! Please take this article to heart and give yourself a moment’s reflection of who you already are. My hope is that you can say to yourself: “Hey, that’s me! I do that!” within the paragraphs that follow.
Habit 1: Highly Imperfect Parents Never Put Conditions on their Love
No matter the conditions that may exist and the heartaches we endure when our children test us to the very limits or they fall far from our expectations, a bridge back to our children must always remain passable for when they return. Love knows no bounds regardless of how dim the future may seem.
Always remember one thing when it comes to love—it is first a verb and second a feeling. It is never the other way around. Stephen R. Covey states that “love is something you do: the sacrifices you make, the giving of self, like a mother bringing a newborn into the world. If you want to study love, study those who sacrifice for others, even for people who offend or do not love in return. If you are a parent, look at the love you have for the children you sacrificed for. Love is a value that is actualized through loving actions.”
Habit 2: Highly Imperfect Parents are Friends to their Children
Have you ever heard of this oft-repeated statement: “Stop being a friend and start being a parent!” Not to knock my own profession but, sadly, I have to confess that this misinformation has been uttered by more than one professional. In our defense, however, I feel that this concept is more misstated than misguided advice. Let me explain.
Picture, if you will, a good friend—either one you grew up with or one you have now. Why is that person your friend? Which traits and characteristics do you like about them? Perhaps you may be thinking along these lines:
- I can go to them when I’m having problems.
- I can be upset, hurt, or even blunt with them but they just listen and tell me it’s okay.
- When I’m with them, I have a lot of fun and can look forward to a good time.
- We have similar interests.
- We can get in arguments but will always reconcile our differences.
- The world just seems like a safer place when I’m with my friend.
- I can be myself around them.
Who wouldn’t want to be around someone like this? Or, perhaps, I should say, what parent wouldn’t want to have a friendship like this with their child? As I stated earlier, let’s remember and not misstate what a friend actually is. You’re not your daughter’s “girlfriend”, conveying an almost immature, ditsy, non-grounded relationship. Friendship starts from a true, almost magnetic desire to form a bond out of sincerity of heart. Yes, you discipline, form boundaries, and act as a parent should, but parenting doesn’t necessarily mean taking an authoritarian, robotic stance to your relationship. Let your friendship shine forth as you have experienced in the past. I think you’ll find you have a lot in common.
Habit 3: Highly Imperfect Parents are Quick to Correct and Quick to Love
My wife and I have three beautiful daughters. Our oldest is a social butterfly who enjoys palling around with some of the adult women in our neighborhood. She has made an especially good friend who is in her 50s, newly married for the first time, and has no children. This sweet neighbor and her husband’s home is the hang-out spot for all the kids and adolescents in our neighborhood. This couple loves children and they spoil them with attention and goodies.
After a few hours of hanging out, our daughter returns home to face reality (e.g. chores, homework, discipline, etc.) My wife and I know that we can’t “compete” with this couple as they don’t carry the burden of commitment and duty to discipline her and to provide safety, shelter, and structure. That’s our job, of course, and our daughter sometimes wonders why we are so “strict” and “overbearing” while other environments seem so carefree. No wonder parents seem to be the bad guys or the ones that get the brunt of rolling eyes and abrupt huffs.
On one particular occasion, finally exasperated at our unwillingness to yield to a certain demand, our oldest blurted out, “Why won’t you just let me do what I want to do?! It’s my life!” Oh, man, how my we wanted to lecture her! But everything was too emotional and our speech would have fallen on deaf ears. Still, we stood our ground. Of course, it would have been a lot easier to give in, at least during the short-term, but we were quick to deny the request and explained why we were opposed to it. The battle lost, she sulked away but within an hour another subject surfaced and we were friends again.
Was this a brilliant psychological intervention contrived by perfect parents? Of course not. Remember, we’re imperfect parents. It just seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. And you know what? Our children are still our friends although they know we will express our opinions and set boundaries and expectations.
I would like to end this article with a final thought: imperfect parenting is not ineffective, incompetent, or bad parenting. Sometimes we just don’t have all the answers. We simply do the very best we can and, although imperfect, the very fact that we care, sacrifice, worry, love, and try make us competent, effective, and good parents. Ignore the naysayers and what Peter Perfect and Fiona Flawless are doing down the street. You are not them and they are not you. There’s always coaching and therapy for parents by professionals if needed, but the real genius is the element of “you” that is put into the art of parenting. Keep that person alive and vibrant regardless of the imperfections!
By Matthew Dean Barkdull, LMFT, MedFT