Perfectionism In Parenting

Do We Care Too Much?

A mom friend and I walked around the park on a crisp, sunny Fall morning with her toddler in tow. Taking this rare Monday opportunity to decompress from the weekend pace of nonstop parenting, we settled on a core question: Do we care TOO much? Screen time. Nutrition. Combed hair. Being on time. Are we undermining ourselves and our parenting values by caring too much?

A couple of years ago, our family adjusted to a new routine of me picking up the kids from school two days a week. During this new afternoon-at-home routine, I aimed for a healthy snack, and fun and relaxation without screens before some homework. What actually happened? The kids were ransacking the pantry for subpar on-the-go snack foods, and whipping out their tablets, setting off circular arguments that did not resemble the quality family time I had envisioned.

This after-school routine mercifully smoothed out over the course of the school year, but I ask myself sometimes, “what if?” What if I said yes more? What if I let them play on their tablets and watch Netflix until they just don’t want to anymore? What if I didn’t care how much sugar they consume, and they eat sweets until they don’t want to?

“My greatest fear is letting down my children in a fundamental, formative way that probably has nothing to do with sugary snacks and screen time.”

Okay, so there are reasons we have to set limits for our children. Obviously, they don’t have the best judgment or foresight because those parts of their brains are going to be working on that for many more years. If we let them do what felt good and hope they figure out their own limits, many kids would eat all the chocolate and watch YouTube videos until their brains are too numb to ever stop the endless feed.

But I get so tired of the same battles. In my social life revolving around my children’s activities, meaning I have time to talk to other parents at birthday parties, gymnastics classes, or walking to school, I hear my struggles echoing all around me.  

Are we picking the right battles? Are we even setting the right limits? Are we creating new problems in our efforts to be the best parents we can be?

The Poison of Perfectionism

This is where perfectionism may come into play. As I see the poison of perfectionism more and more in my clinical practice with stressed out teenagers, it’s like a mirror for my own tendencies. I have called myself “a recovering perfectionist,” thinking I had moved past those demons. Well, I do think I had (mostly) moved past them in my professional life, but I’m starting to realize they may have followed me into my parenting life.

Are you a perfectionist too? Common traits: having exceedingly high standards and expectations, being self-critical when you don’t reach them, and being concerned about others’ perceptions. Translate to real life, and I have set very high expectations for myself as a mother and when the inevitable conflicts and problems arise, my self-criticism can set in. I must be doing something wrong. What can I do better?

The Illusion of Control

I KNOW rationally that I’m doing fine raising my children. But the stubborn roots of perfectionism run deep and tangled. My greatest fear is letting down my children in a fundamental, formative way that probably has nothing to do with sugary snacks and screen time. Part of the fabric of perfectionism? Control. Or more accurately, the illusion of control.

Perfectionism in Parenting

I think of the seatbelt example. We may not have control over another driver causing an accident, but we do have control over fastening seatbelts to mitigate harm.

In parenting, we are inundated with potential harm, both outside of our control, and within our control. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference, and we often end up with the ILLUSION of control that paradoxically makes us more anxious as we strive to maintain the sense of control that may or may not be real.

Thus follow rules for screen time and nutritious eating, as just a couple of examples. I pick these areas of battle because of how I have seen these types of habits at young ages matter in later development. I see these battles now as worth it in the long run, for my children’s brains and bodies.

I admit, however, that my perfectionist tendencies may, at times, take things too far. There’s actually a point that being overly rigid and controlling in parenting causes other problems, like lower self-worth and sense of mastery for our children. I have to give myself reality checks sometimes, like that extra show or iPad game here and there does not mean a future of video game addiction.

My high standards of always performing in line with high expectations can mean overdoing it on setting limits. In translation, I “care too much” because of my own issues, not for the sake of my children.

“It’s About Connection”

This same Mom friend from the Monday walk shared the perfect example of this tension: in her attempts to prepare her family to look nice for a professional family photo shoot, her 7-year-old daughter disagreed with the outfit plan and declined hair-combing, adding to the flurry of stress that morning. The mother recounted how her child simply stated, “Mom, it’s not about what we wear. It’s about connection.”

My friend saw this as a signal to slow down, breathe, and think about how she was responding to the situation. I saw this as beautiful proof of all that my friend had been doing right in her parenting, even in between moments of doubt and exasperation. In her wise reflection, my friend added it was also FINE for her to WANT that family photo to include combed hair and matching outfits, even if it didn’t totally manifest as envisioned. (Nice role model for self-compassion!)

Our Little Bonsais

I don’t want my children to end up in the chains of perfectionism. I want them to live a more psychologically carefree life. I remind myself of this when I make my mistakes and then openly discuss them with my children. It helps me relax to lean in to times I over-react or over-control, and hopefully my children see that making mistakes is no big deal if we can talk about them.

Former Stanford Dean of Admissions and author, Julie Lythcott-Haims, preaches about the harms of parental over-involvement for young adult development in her must-read, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. In her related Ted Talk, she uses the metaphor of our children as bonsai trees. We may be helping give them shape, but each child has their own shape unique to them that will emerge, no matter what shape we are expecting or attempting to prune.

In short, we may have influence, but we don’t have control. And as much as perfectionism may run rampant in our modern parenting world, there is no such thing as perfect parenting.

At the end of the day, after deep breaths and allowing a moment to be centered, I do believe my children are perfect in their imperfections, perfect in their little selves exactly who they are in this moment (even if missing a serving of fruits and veggies for the day). I just need to keep working on knowing the same is true about me as a mother.