Friday, October 12, 2012

The Myth of the Perfect Child

"But the grass is greener over there!!"  My wonderfully imperfect child can reject a vegetable from a mile away, spot the sunrise from hours away, and has been known to collapse on the floor because she couldn't have another cracker.
I have many friends who are parents and most of them I would consider to be good parents.  Some of them are incredible parents whom I admire and want to emulate.  But most of them frequently feel like they aren’t doing a very good job.  Some days it seems like things are going well, other days they are plagued by doubt, and some days they are convinced they could win the World's Worst Parent award.  Why is it that so many good parents feel like they are failing?  I have been thinking lately about this question and want to share a few of my speculations.  Since my speculations are more numerous than my time, I think this will turn into a mini-series.  Besides, “mini-series” makes it sound like I really know what I’m talking about. :)

1. The Myth of the Perfect Child

I have a friend whose baby was sleeping through the night at 3 months old.  At 7pm she happily laid down in her bed and slept peacefully until 7am, then entertained herself quietly for another hour before alerting her mother with happy cooing.  At 6 months old this baby sat peacefully on her own, playing with toys for half an hour.  At 10 months this baby never threw food on the floor.  At 15 months she was speaking in full sentences, most of which started with the word "please."  At 18 months she self potty trained.  At 24 months she never threw tantrums and happily reached for another carrot stick, no dressing needed.  At 3 years old she was not only dressing herself, she was also doing her own laundry and picking out color-coordinated outfits.

Do you know someone like this?  Actually, me neither.  For one thing there's no way we would still be friends.  For another thing that child doesn't exist.  Our vision of the perfect child is just a compilation of all the enviable traits of a dozen children we've heard of and then dangerously expect our child to be.  But one thing we forget is that the child who was indeed a terrific sleeper had a tremendous difficulties with nursing.  That independent player is 18 months and barely talking at all.  The toddler who loves carrot sticks and brocolli won't potty train until 4.  The 3 year old did do her own laundry...flooding the washer and staining all her clothes in the process.

When I hear people brag about their child's enviable traits (or bemoan their less enviable ones), I have to think, "What is our idea of the perfect child?"  It seems to me that the perfect child is one who interferes with our life as little as possible.  He sleeps so much we hardly see him in between naps!  He plays so well on his own we don't even have to interact with him!  I often think of how much I could accomplish if Juliana didn't want to be with me all the time.  There are certainly advantages to encouraging age-appropriate independence, but is a "perfect child" really one who doesn't need her parents?

The perfect child is actually a miniature adult.  Sure, you get to dress her in cute clothes and she says funny things, but she thinks and acts like an adult.  My friends (and I) often express frustration about our children's irrational behavior.  If you were happy to eat it yesterday why won't you touch it today?  If you stick your finger in there again, of course it's going to get pinched - don't you remember the last time?  We expect our children to think the same way as fully rational adults do (forgetting how many times we also do dumb things over and over again when we should know better).

The perfect child also seems to be rather lacking in the personality and emotion. He is compliant and passive, happily agreeing to whatever we suggest.  She has no opinion (or better yet, she has our opinion) about what to eat and what to wear.  She doesn't get upset when things don't go her way (perhaps because she's so  rational).  Instead she calmly accepts life and lets it wash over her.

Sometimes I'm not sure if we've actually gotten over the idea that "children should be seen and not heard."  A good child is still considered one who looks nice but doesn't mess up our lives to much.

When our children do act like children, when they have big needs or a large personality, we start to wonder what is wrong with them -- Or perhaps more so, what is wrong with us that we can't control them.  Everyone else's baby is sleeping through the night.  Nobody else's child is screaming in the middle of the supermarket.

As parents we have a responsibility to help our children to behave appropriately, handle their emotions, and do things they don’t want to.  Some of their actions do reflect on our parenting.  But no matter how good of parents we are, we will never have a perfect child.  It is unfair to expect it from them or from ourselves.  And honestly, if we did have the perfect child, everyone would probably hate us.  Is that really what we want?  Enjoy your friends (who secretly feel relieved that your child also throws tantrums).  Enjoy your imperfect child.

1 comment:

Nate and Molly said...

This was refreshing and challenging to read because I didn't realize how much I have ascribed to the idea that my children are best when they don't interfere with my life. Ouch.

At Emily's wedding weekend they had a dance and M & T spent the entire evening climbing up the stage steps, climbing down, and running like maniacs all over the stage. They weren't in anyone's way since the dance was on the floor, but we also didn't get to dance at all. Which is okay because it's just a stage of life. But there was a family that joined us on the steps with 6 stair-step children. All 6 sat perfectly on the steps, contentedly looking on to the dance without running wild like mine. I asked the mom what her secret was to such well behaved children, and she said you have to train them from infancy to sit on your lap. Then as they become toddlers to sit on a carpet square (ie. during family worship). You can help train babies by putting them on a pack and play while you're cooking or doing whatever (for a ltd. time) for them to learn self-discipline and self-control. I immediately felt like a terrible mother. The pack n play thing is not really my style--it seems like a lot of work--and I mostly just let the boys roam the house anyway within reason (for the most part they prefer to be in the same room as me anyway). The WHOLE way home that night I told Nate what a terrible mother I was, that I wasn't teaching my boys anything, that I have no control, that they're so ill behaved, etc. He reminded me that they are ONE and not badly behaved. But it stuck with me and I have been wrestling with this comparison and doubting game every since.

Sorry for the essay. It seemed like the right opportunity to get it off my back!