The Perfectionist Parent

Why being too hard on yourself can harm your child.


Dynamic Duo Studio

Dynamic Duo Studio

The moment I saw my daughter, I knew I'd made a terrible mistake. Her eyes were red. Her face was puffy from crying. And she looked at me like I was the worst mother on the planet. Perhaps I was.

She had just received a "Good Citizen" award at the school assembly, and I had missed it. I didn't mean to. In truth, I'd planned my whole day around the assembly. Willa had been one of three first-graders in her class chosen to receive the award, and I was so proud of her that I gathered an embarrassingly large entourage of relatives to witness her moment of glory. I also carefully marked it on our calendar: Assembly, Friday at 10:30. But I was wrong. The assembly had started at 9:45. By the time we arrived, Willa had already received her award.

As I held her afterward, I tried to explain that I was horribly, horribly sorry and that even grown-ups make mistakes. "This," she replied, as if knowing exactly where to pierce my heart, "is the biggest mistake you've ever made." That's when I realized that I was never going to be the perfect parent, no matter how hard I tried. It was another painful reminder that I wasn't even close.

We all know who that perfect parent is supposed to be: The person who's always loving and always around when kids need help with homework or need to be tucked into bed at night, who never loses his or her temper, never desperately craves time to be alone, and never misses assemblies.

No such parents exist, of course. And if they come close, it's sometimes at great cost to themselves and their families. Mothers and fathers who strive for perfection often, ironically, do their children more harm than good. "Parents who cannot tolerate their imperfections often cannot tolerate their children's either," says H. David Stein, M.D., a psychoanalyst in New York City. "As a result, kids will feel that their parents are dissatisfied with them, even if it's not stated. They pick up on subtle cues."

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