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How To Be The Perfect Parent

I’ve noticed, through my work with families, that we sometimes have a tendency to “over-perfect” parenting and exhaust ourselves in the process.

When things feel “off” in terms of family dynamics, we tend to want to overcompensate for the drop in perfection so we try harder… and harder… and often, it just makes things worse.

What if you were told that the MOST effective thing you can do as a parent is relax. Yup – you heard it here. Permission to chill the heck out. Stop scrolling through Instagram at 12:45am looking at the bento box lunch your neighbour made in the shape of the Death Star. I mean, if that’s your creative escape, then great! But if not, it’s ok. Their kid isn’t any happier than yours. They just have a Death Star made of bread and tofu-turkey and cheese.

If you’re stressed out because you had to work a double shift and will be home late, or you didn’t have time to make your child the fondant-covered birthday cake she asked for (or spend $200 on it for that matter), you’re really not doing your child any favours. Stop stressing and let it go. Your kids are going to be ok. Why? Because here is what really matters:

A large-scale longitudinal study was published in the Journal of Marriage & Family in 2015 that looked at whether quantity of time with our kids was a factor in positive emotional, behavioural and academic outcomes later in life. Co-authored by sociologists Kei Nomaguchi from Bowling Green State University, Melissa Milkie from the University of Toronto and Kathleen Denny from the University of Maryland, the study suggests that there is no clear relationship between the sheer amount of time mothers spend with their kids and positive outcomes when kids grow up.

I find two things fascinating about this research. Of course it’s vital we spend time with our children, but the research tells us that that time needs to be time where we are not stressed and time where we are also “engaged” with them. This is even more important than just being physically present. A Washington Post article sites one of the study’s authors saying, it’s actually “Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, that may actually be affecting their kids poorly”.

Secondly, the report shows greater emotional, behavioural and academic benefits for adolescents when parents spend more hours per week of “engaged time” with them. This relationship is less clear from ages 3-11, which is sometimes the time we assume is most crucial to be involved in our kids’ lives. Social factors and educational level was much more clearly linked to future positive outcomes in this study than sheer time together.

So, here are a few ways to re-think the time we ARE spending with our little (or not so little) ones…

  • It’s less about how much you DO with your child and more about who you are BEING when you’re doing it with them.

Most of us are very busy and struggle to get one-on-one time in with our kids. But it’s really about the quality of that time that counts. Our positive mood has an impact when we are together as a family. Positivity is contagious! You don’t always need to be hyper and happy. Be yourself, but be aware of who you are being when you are with your kids. It can have a real impact. If you don’t like the answer to the question, “Who am I when I’m with my kids”, ask yourself the next question, “Who do I WANT to be?”.

  • Find your “happy place” and find a way to share it with your child.

You don’t have to do things you hate just because there is a 5-step DIY craft everyone else is liking on Pinterest. As I’ve heard so wisely said about social media, take care not to compare your inside to somebody else’s outside. Where do you find your mojo? Running? Reading? Drawing? Gardening? Folding laundry (well, some people find it therapeutic)? Invite your kids to come along or share the activity with you. Even if they decline the invitation, you are still modelling self-care and re-charging your battery in the process.

  • Related to the previous point… Let go of doing the things you don’t enjoy just because you think it makes you a better parent. I love to cook (ok, mostly I love eating what I cook…) but I’m not a great baker because I’ve never enjoyed it. I’m sure if I put in some effort, the results would be yummy. But I’ve taken a crack at it and I just can’t get my head around the fun of it. So, after years of thinking there was something wrong with me, I let it go. And the most wonderful thing happened. When I dropped the baking ball, my daughter, sensing there were fewer yummy desserts around, picked it up! She’s actually pretty creative in the kitchen now. I learned a valuable lesson about what my kids gain from what I let go of.
  • Drop the toilet cleaning brush.

Yes, we have to be productive in this crazy world we live in and there is never enough time to get it all done, but you may be taking on more than you need to. Don’t all of the members of your family live under one roof? Home responsibilities are a team challenge and getting them checked off should be approached as a team. What are you doing that someone else could do but you’re doing it because it’s easier to do it yourself? My mother would be appalled by that run-on sentence but, really, it’s necessary.

I challenge you to hand over one thing to your child or partner that they are perfectly capable of doing and that would make your life easier. Write a list (which may be 10 pages long) of all of the things you take care of at home. Sometimes actually seeing the crazy number of things you do to keep the family fires burning is enough to get them to take on ONE more task. Starting to give your kids home responsibilities at a young age is also going to give them a fighting chance when they are launched and living out there in the world on their own. Think of laundry and vacuuming as “Independence & Resourcefulness Training” J. Imagine the energy you will have to be a lovely human being when you’ve opened up those minutes in your day? And when we aren’t running around feeling rushed and resentful, we are more present for our kids… which is exactly the way to be a more perfect parent.

AN ASIDE: Notice I said “more perfect” and not “the perfect parent”. Being a perfect parent is detrimental to your kids’ health – it creates way too much pressure, and not enough room to experiment, explore, make mistakes and learn. And it stresses us out because it’s an impossible standard to maintain. Remember, less stress = better parenting… so drop the perfectionism!

There aren’t enough hours in the day or energy bars in this video-game-called-life to be the perfect parent, partner, employee, cook, cleaner, athlete, gardener, therapist and still have energy to be available to the people you love at the end of the day. Let’s accept that imperfection is a beautiful thing and that the most important things we can do to be great parents are more about letting go than holding on too tightly.