Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Perfectionistic Parenting

Article originally written by Dana Sherman for a parenting workshop.

We live in a society in which we are taught to strive for excellence, to be our best, at everything we do. In some domains, like professionally, this helps us achieve. I recognize this in you, in the questions you ask me, because it’s in me too. I am a perfectionist. My perfectionism has helped me achieve in ways I am very proud of and it has also been painful at times.

These expectations can get us in trouble. You are going to be a parent as long as you are alive. That’s a long time. This isn’t a race; it’s a slow marathon. You will make mistakes—you won’t be perfect. You may even be a long way from perfect at times. Expecting yourself to be perfect is setting yourself up for failure. Unrealistic, perfectionist expectations of parenting will only hurt you and your children.

I hear these words a lot from moms about parenting:
  • Goals
  • Accomplishments
  • Achieving
  • Expectations
  • Confidence
  • Setting Priorities
  • Being the best mom you can be

Part of the discussion today has to do with semantics—we are used to using this language in our adult life. At the same time, there is something disconcerting about these words for a relatively new mom in the context of raising children. These words don’t mean a thing to your child. They are expectations and definitions you have imposed on yourself. I am not suggesting you should stop striving to be a good parent—to learn more, be more empathetic, more consistent, and be a better role model. You are and you should.

I want you to think about two important concepts today.

Good Enough/Successful Parenting:
"Good-enough parenting'' is a clinical term that means parents don't have to be perfect, just "good enough.''

If a child has a parent who can allow them to have their feelings, provide empathy, love and structure, the theory goes, the child will grow up to be well adjusted despite mistakes parents make. This isn't to say that parents won't do something wrong or lose their temper. With "good-enough'' parenting, the safety, structure and love is in place, and the child will be able to weather the times when the parent is angry, sad, distracted, etc.

Definition of Perfectionism vs. Success:
Being successful is defined as adhering to high standards but not at the expense of self-esteem. You accomplish something challenging and you feel good about it. Perfectionism is defined as having extremely high standards that never seem to be met or feel satisfying. You accomplish something and you remind yourself you still haven’t achieved the ultimate goal. You may temporarily feel relieved but not great.

Good enough/successful parenting arises from the realization that you are human and you only need to try your best, not be the best. Perfectionist parenting arises from insecurity and fear of not being good enough. Separate what your child needs from your perception of what others think of you: other mothers, your husband, family members, friends, the media. What matters are what your child thinks, wants, and needs.
  • What do you think our children really need?
  • What pressures have you felt?
  • Where does the idea of Supermom come from?


  • Perfect Madness: Mothering in the age of Uncertainty—Judith Werner
  • I Don’t know how she does it?—Allison Pearson
  • Mothering Without a Map—Kathryn Black
  • The Good Enough Mother by Newsweek Columnist, Anna Quindlen, Feb. 21 issue

1 comment:

Carol said...

You are so "right on" in this article. I think that parents of children with special needs can really fall into the perfect parent trap, especially since specialists advise us to do so much home therapy. I know some of us feel guilty when we are too exhausted to do speech or OT exercises.

Could I put a link to this post in my blog? I think my readers would enjoy it but I'm still a bit new to blogging and not sure about the protocol. I would credit you and give a direct link to your blog, not cut and paste it into my post.

Please let me know if that is/isn't ok. Thanks.