By James Raper
Before reading, check out this video first. First, it’s just funny. Second, it just might be relevant to the rest of this post.
For my day job I’m a therapist at a university. That means that much of my time is spent working with college students who are seeking support/help/consultation for a wide range of issues – from a relationship break-up, to relatively severe mental health concerns, to everything in between. Our campus has a large portion of very high achieving students, and with high achievement also often comes perfectionism. For some of these students, getting a 93 on an Organic Chemistry exam truly feels like “failure” and is a sure sign that they will no longer be able to go to medical school (and if they don’t go to medical school, they are failures as people).
First let me clarify a few things. Perfectionism does not automatically result in success or high achievement. It’s also not a code word for being “neat and clean”, or having an unusually high attention to detail. Perfectionism is about a rigid, black/white approach to ourselves and the world around us. It’s about success and failure with no in between. The problem with a perfectionistic black/white approach is that much life exists in the gray areas – it’s like trying to put a round peg into a square hole.
So what does this have to do with parenting? Well, if I hadn’t already figured out that life was messy and full of “gray areas” in my 20’s, I certainly was slapped in the face with that reality when I began to have kids at 30!
Kids are like whirling dervishes of opportunity to show everyone else what a horrible, terrible, can’t-even-keep-a-plant-alive parent you are. I mean really, on our first trip to the pediatrician after our older son was born (like three days after we were discharged from the hospital) we didn’t even bring extra diapers. Of course, our little one chooses that one hour away from the house to eventually need four extra diapers. I’m pretty sure the other parents in the waiting room were taking my picture on their cell phones and tweeting it with the hashtag: #Icantbelievethatguyisaparent.
The problem here is not that we forget the extra diapers. Or that we are sometimes irritable with our kids and snap at them for no good reason. Or when we give up and make box macaroni and cheese for dinner. The problem is what it feels like to do these things. I’m not saying the goal is to purposely forget to bring the diapers. I’m suggesting that when these things inevitably happen, they don’t have to result in scorching self-criticism and embarrassment. The perfectionist parent works so hard to hide their own humanness from their kids (and certainly not let it see the light of day on Facebook). The irony in this is that in attempting to be perfect, we don’t allow our children to have access to that very important part of us – our humanity.
If it were only as easy as the Newhart Approach! (See video above!) Just work really hard, have enough willpower, and telling ourselves to “stop it” will fix whatever ails us! Therapist or not, I don’t have the golden key to figuring all of this out, though I can tell you that the Newhart Approach doesn’t work. I can share, however, what my approach has been for myself.
My focus on my best days is to work on letting myself be enough. Enough as a dad to my sons, as a husband/partner to my wife, even as a therapist to my clients. Not perfect, but enough. Sometimes I’m still going to hit it out of the ballpark, and sometimes I’m going to fall flat on my face, and a lot of times will be in between. My hope in not hiding my errors/failures/trips and falls as a human being, is that by showing them I accept myself a little bit more. As a father, my hope is that by allowing my sons to see some of my imperfections, they receive the message that they don’t have to be perfect either. That might help them come to me in their imperfectness, knowing that it is normal for them to have made a mistake, or have made a poor choice, and ask for help when they really need it.
James Raper, PhD, LPC-S is Associate Director/Therapist at the Wake Forest University Counseling Center. More importantly he is married to Paige (educator at the Arts Based School), and dad of two truly awesome boys (8 and 3). James was born and raised in Winston-Salem and Charlotte, and if he didn’t love his job so much would be a stay at home dad. Read his previous blog on TMoM through the link below!
Find out more about Fatherly Fridays here!
Previous Fatherly Fridays:
Ten Easy Ways Dads can be More Involved with Their Kids – by Travis Finn
5 Parenting Tips from a Seasoned Dad – by Kim Williams
Programmer Preschool – by Scott Rigdon
Tolerance – by James Raper
Oh So Very Wrong – by Jon Lowder
I’ve Bought Six Wedding Dresses – by Teddy Burriss
The Tiny Terrorist and Toddling Dictator – by Bryan Timmons
Veggie Tales – by Eric Welder
Don’t Stop Dreaming by Busta Brown