I remember the first time I took one of my sons in for stitches. By the time I buckled him into his car seat with that bloodstained cloth still pressed to his cheek, he had already stopped crying. But the tears were just starting to pool in my own eyes. I felt like I had failed. I had been given a perfect, beautiful boy and I let him fall, let him get hurt, and now there would forever be a scar to remind me of my failure. I couldn’t take it away. I couldn’t fix it.
Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But that’s the truth. I really thought that a toddler taking a tumble was indicative of all my inadequacies and a reminder that my many, many parenting mistakes would scar my child forever.
I think that at some point in time every mom and dad experiences that moment when the gravity of being a parent really sinks in. We realize what an important job it is, how high the stakes really are, and all the ways we could possibly screw things up. How will these poor kids possibly survive life with this incurably imperfect parent?
Your kids will not only survive your imperfections, those missteps may actually make them better. Here’s why.
There’s Strength in the Repair
About a year ago I watched a webinar featuring Miven Trageser, MFT, an LA-base child therapist, speaking on the benefit of risk. In that presentation she talked about the fact that children need to the opportunity to risk, to fail, and to overcome. And in that same context she explained something that has stuck with me ever since. There is strength in the repair.
Our children can’t be shielded from everything. They’ll skin their knees. They’ll have broken hearts. They’ll even bear the brunt of our own poor judgement from time to time. But those rough patches aren’t the end of the story. When we scoop them up, kiss their knees, wipe their tears, or say, “I’m sorry” those connections and corrections actually make them stronger than would a perfect life without the bumps and bruises.
It gave me a new perspective. “Success” as a parent isn’t about keeping our children from facing challenges or experiencing pain (as tempting as it is to try). It’s about being there to comfort, love, support, and — when necessary — apologize. It’s not something we track on a tally sheet of our mistakes, it’s an ongoing process of connecting and reconnecting.
Sometimes 20% is Good Enough
The concept of repair is reaffirmed in Ellen Galinsky’s book, Mind in the Making, when she recounts the work of Edward Tronick of the University of Massachusetts Boston. Tronick’s research focus has been on the influence of relationships on child development. Through observing hours of parent-child interactions he has been able to point out the importance of responsiveness and meaningful connections, or as he refers to it, being “in sync”.
Listening to his findings it’s easy to be overwhelmed and to feel the burden of constantly being in sync with your child. But Galinsky points out that this is another case where more doesn’t mean better. In fact, she cites Tronick’s report that even good parents are only perfectly in sync 20%-30% of the time. And according to Tronick, this process of mismatch and repair is a healthy aspect of the parent-child relationship.
As he says, “This not being in sync frees up parents from that constant burden of being perfect — because you can’t be perfect. No matter how hard you try. You can’t be….The experience of repair gives children a sense of reparation, a sense of trust, a sense of mastery.”
We Can Be Examples
We’ll make mistakes. We will. Small ones, and some really big ones. But rather than dwelling on those mistakes and trying to will the hands of time to unwind, we can move forward doing the best we can to repair and reconnect. We can be powerful role models, showing our children what problem solving looks like, what sincere apologies sound like, and what a soft place to land feels like.
We can’t be perfect. But maybe our kids will be better off for it.
This is part of a series: The Myth of Perfect Parenting. Stay tuned for more!