Parenting | Perfectionism
The Perfect Parent Trap
Why Should I Care
Parenting is a challenging job as it is. Let's not layer the sticky trap of perfection on top of it.
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Getting caught in the ‘Perfect’ Parent Trap
As children and as parents, it’s easy to be lured into the ‘Perfect’ Parent Trap.
For children, the attractiveness of ‘Perfect’ Parents existing somewhere means that they can play the victim around having to receive and navigate boundaries.
For example, when they are asked repeatedly to clean their room but don’t. Their parent—in their frustration and exhaustion—blows up at them, the kid mumbles and curses the parent wishing they had better parents, perfect parents, or even no parents at all.
It’s easier to avoid the responsibility of having to clean up their room, blame the parents for being angry people, and to fantasize about having perfect parents who either only ask nicely 20 times or have no rules at all.
This Perfect Parent Trap becomes even more attractive when the parent or caregiver moves beyond the understandable frustrations and stress snaps of parenting and actually commits sustained negative harm and/or abuse to the child.
A child of abuse will fantasize that ‘perfect’ parents do exist which helps the victim navigate the serious impact and challenges of having to process that their caregiver is hurting them.
Note: if you are reading this and are a minor and feel that you are being abused, please reach out to a trusted adult and share what is happening. Here are resources for seeking help from child abuse and more info around what neglect and abuse are.
For many parents, we are also drawn into ideas of the ‘Perfect’ Parent when we fall short of our ideals of what a parent ‘should’ be.
This happens when we over react to our kids over stimulation, the barrage of questions when we’re trying to apply a sliver of our scattered focus to something else, when we’ve asked for the upteenth time for our child to do something.
Or the perfect parent grail will blind and irritate or dishearten us when we see the cover of Magnolia at the grocery store checkout, watch some mom or dad of seven kids in a 5 minute news segment and every child looks immaculately dressed, cleaned, showered and happy.
Or, we pick up that book to help us with our parenting skills and feel so defeated because we don’t see results, and instead see ourselves as flawed parents that will never be able to keep our cool.
Helping Children Escape the Perfect Parent Trap
Escaping the Perfect Parent Trap takes time, patience, and an understanding of what built the trap in the first place.
As children (excluding abuse or neglect, please see above for resources), the Perfect Parent Trap is built when we begin seeing, encountering or hearing about other families and how the parents and children interact.
Sometimes children will construct a perfect parent illusion around material goods. They see what other children have and compare it to what they don’t have. This is especially prevalent around our materialistic customs of gift receiving during holidays or birthdays. We rank our parent’s love and perfection in the number of toys we get, or the clothes we wear, or the vacations and time spent together.
Other ways children set the Perfect Parent Trap is when they see or hear what other parents allow their children to do or get away with. “So-and-so gets to…,” “Their parents let them…” and other comparisons set up these ideal parents and make mincemeat out of their own parents.
When parents don’t realize this is happening, distance can grow between them and their child.
As parents, we can help minimize this tendency of our children to fall into this trap by acknowledging their frustrations around the things they complain about and lack.
A helpful thing for our family is creating safe spaces for letting our children speak their minds. Giving them time and space to answer questions without being pushed or rushed—The Conscious Parent by Dr. Shefari Tsabary is a great resource for more on this—allows them the ability to start sharing their thoughts and feelings with you.
Because of creating these conditions in our own far-from-perfect household, our children have shared some sad but honest sentiments with us such as: “I sometimes wish you weren’t my parents,” “When I’m mad I want to run away,” or “I don’t want to live here.”
As painful as it can be to hear your five-year-old share thoughts like this, it’s provided us the opportunity to speak to those feelings and empathize with them. We then get to share that we thought and felt those things, too, when we were frustrated with boundaries, chores, or the over-stressed mom or dad.
Being honest and creating that safe space for communication with deep and non-judgemental listening with your children can help take the glamour off the Perfect Parent Trap fantasy and give children a grounded and healthy parent-child relationship that doesn’t require as much desire for escape.
Helping Parents Escape the Perfect Parent Trap
For us parents, escaping the trap of perfection around parenting is doable. First, we have to acknowledge that it is there in the first place.
Even if you aren’t a parent but are an adult you may have said or heard, “My parents weren’t perfect, but they did their best.”
I know I’ve used a variation of that when describing my own childhood. That simple phrase implies that perfect parents do exist which is total rubbish. There are no perfect parents.
But, like I said earlier, the myth of the perfect parent is everywhere. It’s in the books (the reason I recommend Dr. Tsabary’s book is because she is very real about her own struggles becoming a conscious parent), it’s in the magazine stand, it’s flaunting itself on our social media feeds. The supermom, all star dad, the amazingly and artful kid’s lunches. They all can make us feel like we aren’t measuring up to perfection.
We begin escaping the trap—like anything—by recognizing that it exists in the first place.
Perhaps you do or have said something similar labeling your parents or others as ‘perfect’ or ‘not perfect.’ Call attention and awareness to the use of perfect in your daily language. If you do say it—because I still catch myself sometimes using it—then give yourself the space and permission to rewind and replace it with a less charged and potentially shame inspiring word.
You can replace perfect with: great, awesome, healthy, kind, etc. Get more descriptive as to what you’re actually trying to say because perfect is intangible because it’s a state that nothing can ever achieve.
Once we see where perfect lives in us and start to replace it in our thoughts and words, we can turn our focus on other things we can control: our habits, actions and reactions.
Instead of lamenting what other parents do perfectly, just appreciate what you like about what they’re doing and practice doing a small aspect of what they do.
An example is the amazingly artful lunch mom above. I deeply appreciate the artistic flair and world this mom creates for her kid(s). My perfectionist tendency would lean towards creating beliefs around why she has time for that and I don’t; what she has that I don’t. Or I could lean towards a healthy habit of noting what I like about it and taking a small aspect of it and applying it to my own lunches for the kids and instead of making an elaborate scene, maybe I just decorate a hot dog with a ketchup face and arms on the plate. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Another example is when we snap and shout or say that wrong thing. We can spiral into our shame hole while our child cries or fumes, or we can release from the Perfect Parent Trap, take a moment to breathe, shake it out, and love ourselves for our flaws and go apologize to our kid and better express what we’re needing and who we’re asking them to be or what to do.
It can also be helpful to remember that what we see externally—of anyone or any relationship—is never the full picture.
So, when you do see what may be a “perfect” family or parent, a good practice is to smile and be happy for what you perceive to be great. Tap into excitement that they appear to be enjoying themselves, or are able to spend that time with their children in these fleeting moments that go by in a blink.
Accessing that appreciation and celebration for more joy in the world gives you permission and practice to access your own joy. It’s a simple twist of the story we write in our heads, and it’s up to us to choose which perspective to take.
Feeling less trapped and more free to just be?
I hope some of this was helpful for you. I had the inspiration to write about this as that phrase, “My parents weren’t perfect…” and thought about why the hell do we even think there are perfect parents?
Wishing you health and happiness as you embrace imperfection.
Who Is Writing This?
Hey, I'm Tigre Pickett and I'm a recovering perfectionist.
I bought this domain in 2014 and sat on it for seven years before finally taking my own imperfect action and dove into sharing my experiences with perfection. How on brand!
It's my goal to provide others inspiration, guidance and support around befriending perfection by giving it other, more kind and accurate clothes and identities to wear.
I've sold myself short a lot in my life due to perfection's grip. May this website and my work provide you some glorious relief to just be with the messy, flawed, and totally lovable and worthy human you are.