The Benefits of Being an Imperfect Parent

by Gary Gilles

Benefits of Being an Imperfect ParentIn a recent conversation someone told me they were striving to be the “perfect” parent. “Why?” I asked. “Why not?” she replied, sounding surprised that I didn’t agree with her. “Don’t our kids deserve healthy, responsible parents who can provide sound guidance to help them grow up?” I thought for a moment and said, “Sure, I agree that kids today need sound guidance from parents who are trying to be healthy themselves. But why does a parent need to be “perfect” in order to do that? It seems to me that we can teach our children as much through our weaknesses or imperfections as we can our strengths.” She responded with a confused and disapproving look.

But her comments about being a “perfect” parent made me think through this more carefully.  What our children need most from us is not perfection but attunement – our ability to pay close and consistent attention to what’s going on with them and then to respond to what we see and hear. This means tuning in to your child’s words, behavior and feelings.

However, even the most devoted parents are going to make a lot of mistakes along the path of parenting. Does this mean our kids are doomed to unhealthy relational patterns and habits? Not at all. Use your mistakes and your shortcomings as a way to teach potent lessons to your children.

For example, a father comes home after a stressful day at work and explodes in anger over a minor mishap at the dinner table. Afterward, he feels terrible about how he handled the situation. If he believes that he can use his mistake as a learning opportunity for his children, he will focus on repairing the damage. Here’s what that might look like:

1)      He could start by admitting to his child that what he said and did at dinner was wrong (no excuses about having a bad day at work, he just takes full ownership for the bad behavior)

2)      He could then sincerely apologize and ask for forgiveness

This approach is a good start and includes several important lessons about imperfect parenting. It teaches the child that:

  • parents can make mistakes
  • it’s okay to feel sad when you hurt someone’s feelings
  • asking for forgiveness is an important part of repairing an injury to the relationship
  • you can take full responsibility for your words and actions without excuses

But there is one more step this father could take. It is a quantum leap that not only repairs the relationship but greatly strengthens it.  After the father has taken the two steps outlined above, he could say:

“Thank you for letting me tell you those things and for forgiving me. But I also wanted to know what you were feeling when I was so angry tonight.”

Put it in your own words, but the idea is to invite your child to tell you what they experienced during the conflict. They may say they were scared, angry, couldn’t believe you made such a big deal out of nothing, was acting like a child or something else. These can be difficult things to hear. But again, if you’ve embraced the fact that you’re an imperfect parent, you should be able to hear them AND (here’s the most difficult part) affirm that your child has a right to feel this way. You don’t have to agree with your child, but you should try to affirm that it is okay for them to feel the way they do. This disclosure may then lead to more conversation and more repair. But, that’s a good thing because you are talking it out.

The profound lesson your child might take away from this last exchange is: my feelings matter. My dad (or mom, whichever is the case) cared enough to ask me about my feelings AND gave me the opportunity to tell him.  It takes a secure parent to go this extra step but the payoff can be huge if you can practice it as needed.

So, being an imperfect parent, in my opinion, has far more potential for teaching your child how real relationships work and most importantly how healthy relationships should work.

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