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Why we strive to make our children perfect

Don't project your own anxieties on your children, magnifying small details as magnificent faults

Photo: iStockphoto.
Photo: iStockphoto.

I received an email from a father last week and asked him for permission to share my response to him. Every family is unique in its own way and yet so many of our concerns are universal.

Dear Natasha,

I don’t know if I have a unique problem. My only child is eight years old and I feel that I am failing as a father. She is delightful and enraging all at once.

Sometimes I feel she is turning out to be everything I did not want her to be. I know she’s only 8, but she has already started rebelling. She is good in many things, drawing being her favourite activity.

And yet, I push her to be more perfect, more sparkling, more everything, as if time is running out.

Both of us are working parents. We are unable to give her all the time that we should. But she has her grandparents always around to care for her. I know this does not absolve us of any responsibilities.

I try to read about parenting as much as I can but when it comes to implementing things, I’m hardly ever able to do it. I fail to follow up on things and sometimes my wife does not agree with what I want to do. She feels I am being too finicky about discipline.

Every once in a while I lose my temper and yell at my daughter. And then I keep repenting it the entire day. I want her to be strong and independent. I want to teach her from the mistakes that I’ve made in my life. But that is not happening and I feel I’m failing as a parent.

Father of an eight-year-old daughter

Dear Parent,

Stand still for a while. Press pause on your anxiety.

The act of asking for help is an important milestone. We are trained to neither acknowledge nor share our vulnerabilities. We bury them deep from where they cannot be heard or seen. You have begun to surrender your inhibitions.

Parents often become enraged with their children, not because the child is behaving inappropriately, but because we are conditioned to be embarrassed by childlike behaviour. We want to erase it.

Move out of your child’s way. Watch her from a distance to know her. An eight-year-old is in a unique stage of life—her imagination guides her and she is learning to understand and control her feelings. She is also discovering her own capabilities.

You don’t have to react to everything your daughter does, whether it is her being brilliant or bored. You don’t need to intervene in her rhythm. You can let her be, you don’t need to judge and measure her against your own unstable expectations.

What will happen if you accept that everything is fine? Will you feel that you are not doing enough? Are you ashamed to be contented? Don’t be.

You are standing in the fog of dissatisfaction. Something is bothering you enough for you to have written in to ask for help. It may not be your child; her presence has just pushed you out of your comfort zone.

I am quite relieved and startled to find that in every paragraph of your email you have also provided an answer to the doubt you are articulating. Your child has her own interests that occupy her. She has the company of her grandparents. Your wife and you provide checks and balances to each other. You have a clear idea that you want your daughter to grow up to be independent.

See your arguments with each other as a safety net for your family. When you disagree as parents, you also learn to see the same situation from a new perspective. When your daughter witnesses her mother and father behaving like equals in their relationship, she learns from experience. You cannot tell her how to be, you can only show her.

Here is something else to do. Look into what’s going on between your own parents and you. Is your own inner child stressed out, always trying to please a parent you are afraid you have failed? Search for the core from where your own restlessness and hurt emanates. How do you feel about yourself when you are alone with yourself?

You say your daughter is great—perfect and sparkling—but you push her to be more perfect. We project our own anxieties on our children, magnifying small details as magnificent faults.

Children make us happy in the most unexpected way. We see flashes of brilliance in their words, drawings and analytical comments that take our breath away. Yet children will be children. They will have bouts of being tired, sleepy, whiny, greedy, clingy and adamant. We don’t always have the energy or patience to deal with their emotional outbursts. Sometimes, even their basic needs overwhelm us.

Step back and focus on your own unmet needs when you feel frustrated, exhausted or full of regret. Get yourself some time to rest, to do things that rejuvenate you. Children are wise and driven by their own inner maps. You need to refuel and restore yourself, so that you can meet your daughter where she is.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the forthcoming book, My Daughters’ Mum

She tweets at @natashabadhwar

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