Parents aren’t Perfect – How that helps, How that hurts

With Mother’s Day and Father’s Day coming up, it’s a good time to take a look at your relationship with your parents, even if they are no longer here, and if you are a parent, to reflect on how you are doing, and what could make it better.

This could be one of the best gifts you can give to your parents—and yourself!

Of course, we learn that parents aren’t perfect by the time we reach adolescence. As a matter of fact, it’s often a time when the “good” parent takes a back seat to all the ways they fall short. It’s the time in our development when we are finding out who we are as separate from our parents and feel the need to create distance in order to accomplish this.

Consider this: The very first experience upon coming into this world (for most), is we feel hungry and magically someone feeds us. We feel wet and someone gets us dry. We have physical or emotional discomfort and someone appears to comfort us. Since this all happens so early, before any real ability to understand in a conceptual way, it registers in us as a cause and effect sequence and becomes our expectation of our caregivers. At this stage our parents are perfect—our needs are simple.

Then the socialization process begins, and parents need to say no, set limits, and even exercise discipline. The child learns that his/her parents aren’t simply instruments to provide comfort and pleasure. And the seasons of discontent begin. It’s a rude awakening, to discover that there might be things the child does that aren’t okay. The child begins to test the strength of the limits the parents set. While they are testing the boundaries and may seem determined to “win,” in reality, they secretly want to know where the limits are, it makes the world they are being introduced to a safer place.

The more prevalent and complex issue of perfection in parents has to do with mistakes parents make due to their lack of knowledge or experience, as well as their own personal history and personality. Most significant is the parent’s capacity to accurately recognize their child’s needs and unique personality and are able to respond to those needs in a helpful and appropriate way.

Conflict is inevitable as parents and children struggle to find their own way while providing the words and actions that will secure and enhance the relationship.

The challenge for the child—to learn how to accept the imperfections of the parent without needing to reject the relationship or have the expectation that the parent can and will change. Ideally, they recognize the unconstructive actions of the parent don’t mean the child is lacking or flawed. All too often the child will internalize the words and actions of the parent that interfere with their development of a healthy self-esteem. These children need to see their parents as perfect role models—their parents are the most reliable source of feedback and safety, so in the eyes of the child, they want or need them to be flawless, otherwise they will flounder, lacking a clear direction.

Depending on the quality and regularity of the unhelpful behaviors coming from the parent, the child will develop coping mechanisms. The child can rebel and fight back, they can rebel by becoming very passive and non-responsive, they can stop listening, they can become the ultimate pleasers. Each one of these coping mechanisms has a rationale behind it for the child. They all stem from the child’s belief that there are no other options—like being able to talk and be heard by their parents. This becomes their view of the world—until they are old enough to have different experiences with other people. If the wounds are deep enough, the child/adult will begin to project their experience with their parents onto other people and be unable to form trusting and safe relationships with others.

One of the most important ways the parent’s imperfections can help: The child can learn that being imperfect is natural and human. What a burden it would be to continue to see your parents as perfect and that you need to figure out how to be perfect yourself!

Consider this: Take time to focus and reflect on what your parents have taught you, and what you have learned from them. Then sit down and write them a letter (preferably on paper, because it’s more personal than an e-mail and seems to help more freedom of expression). Even experiences you may have thought of as negative could be an opportunity to grow from.

An example from my own experience: Growing up, my mother was so anxious to “teach” me to be self-sufficient, she foisted too much responsibility on me too soon. As a child, I was scared and felt deprived of getting to be a kid. As the years passed, I began to realize this experience added to my self-confidence and ability to take responsibility. This recognition, along with seeing her as less than perfect, helped me to let go of my hurt and anger towards my mother and to develop some kindness and understanding.

Here’s some questions for you to consider:

  • What was your relationship with your parents like when you were growing up:
    What were the three most positive things and what were the three most disappointing things?
  • In what ways has your relationship with your parents improved or declined with the passage of time?
  • What expectations did you have of your parents?
  • What have you learned from your relationship with your parents?
  • How would you describe your most recent relationship with your parents?
  • What is one thing you could do now to make the relationship better?

The year my daughter turned 18, she gave me a card for Mother’s Day that read: “Mom, you know all the aggravation I’ve been causing you? Well, I’m almost finished!” From this card a whole new dialogue began that continues to this day, many years later.

Think about some new possibilities of a gift you can give your parents that is more tangible and lasting than flowers or candy. Please share your ideas in the comments section of this blog.

I’d love to hear your comments, questions, and experiences related to this subject.

Please check out my website: for more information.To learn more about what the parent can do, check out my book: Your Living Legacy, How Your Parenting Style Shapes the Future for You and Your Child

Feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested.


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