This is a blog all just for me. It has no purpose whatsoever except for me to share some of the random nonsense I happen to be thinking about in my day-to-day life. Sometimes it sure is nice not to have a purpose.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Permission To Not Be A Perfect Child

My last posting, Permission To Not Be A Perfect Parent, was about the pressure I often feel to be a perfect parent. Writing this has really made me reflect upon how much of the pressure that I feel is just perceived and how much is truly directed or intentional. After all, if I step back and view things from the outside (using the dissociative technique I described in a previous posting, Learning To Take Criticism), I can see how all of the parenting advice that accumulates to make me feel inadequate is probably provided on a one-by-one basis with the best of intentions. It is only when being bombarded by the many voices en masse that I feel the pressure of feeling like I'm "not enough."

With this in mind, I am also busy thinking about how children, too, can often experience the pressure of feeling like they're "not enough." There are a couple of passages that stick out from some of the extracurricular reading that I've done over the past week. The first passage is from the young adult fiction title The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. In the book, sixteen year old Jenna wakes up with no memory of her childhood after having survived a horrible car accident. Part of her re-education after the accident consists of viewing hours upon hours of video that her parents have recorded of every year of her life. As the title of the book suggests, a central theme in the book deals with the concept of "adoration" and how it may be a double-edged sword. In Jenna's words:

They placed me on a pedestal from the day I was born! What choice did I have but to be perfect! And if I lagged in math or soccer or navel gazing, they got me a personal tutor! And then I was tutored or coached until I was perfect! I've been under a microscope my entire life! From the moment I was conceived, I had to be everything because I was their miracle! That's what I had to live up to every day of my life!

Reading this made me question the adoration my husband and I have of our son. What does it mean that we take picture upon picture of him and that we video record many of his milestone and ordinary moments? What does it mean that we spend time writing about him and give him an inordinate amount of "kissies" on a daily basis? I know that the answer does not lie in neglecting him, but how exactly do you love a child, without imposing the pressure of being placed on a pedestal? I know I felt like I was in the presence of a miracle when I was pregnant and again when I gave birth. Every night when he finally falls asleep, just the raising and lowering of his chest is a beautiful wonder, and every morning when his eyes pop open fresh to face the day, my faith is renewed in the world.

At the same time I'm a parent, I am also the child of my parents and I know the burden of wanting to have their approval and acceptance. This brings me to the second passage that resonated with me this week, which is from the memoir Boy of Steel written by my friend and colleague Steve Montgomery:

[M]y mother poured all of her affection into me. I had given up on trying to please my father--it was clear that I couldn't even pretend to be the son he desired me to be--but my need for my mother's approval was equal in strength to her need for me to be her perfect little boy. My fear of disappointing her began to overwhelm me.

On the one hand, a child's need for approval is one of the most powerful ways that parents can get their child to "succeed." I remember reading a parenting book years ago that explained how parenting has changed a lot from the past. Since children are no longer afraid of adults in terms of corporal punishment, the best tool parents have for getting children to follow their rules is to realize that all children ultimately crave approval from their parents.

The flip side to this is in recognizing how this power is so immense that it too can be crippling even though it is not a physical blow. I hate the thought that I may overwhelm my son with a fear of disappointing me. I want him to know that I love him and accept him as he is. Of course, the real test will come with each of my son's "failures." Will I necessarily approve of all of his life's choices and is unconditional approval necessarily the answer? Perhaps the distinction is between approval and acceptance so that while I may not approve of everything he does, I can strive to accept him no matter what. Then again, my mom has said in the past, "I'm happy if you're happy," but it was always said when I could feel she was anything but happy. She did not approve and all that I wanted was her approval--acceptance alone did not feel good.

So in the end, maybe the most important thing is to realize is that we're all, both parent and child, flawed human beings. We may try our best all along the way and still always end up failing in some ways. We may love deeply and still never be able to avoid inflicting pain. Thus, maybe my focus need not be so much on how we can accept one another, but how we can learn to accept imperfection.

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