Imperfect Parenting – Letting Kids Admit You’re Not Perfect


Can imperfect parents create healthy homes? Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. I had a week off this week, so I’ve decided to rerun a column from 2010 that I really liked, about the difference between a healthy family and a perfect family.

Imperfect parents make healthy families!I have incredible vision. I can see things that nobody else in my family can. If clean, folded laundry is sitting on the stairs, waiting to be transported into the owners’ rooms, I am the only person residing in our home who can detect that laundry. If there are dishes in the upstairs hall, waiting to be transported into the kitchen and then placed into our very convenient dishwasher, I am also the only person whose eyes pick up on the presence of these glasses and plates. My children missed that genetic trait, as my husband apparently also lacks it.

I find it easy to see the things that my kids miss, and if you’re a parent, you probably can name a ton of things your kids do that bug you, too. And because we’re the parents, it’s easy to order our kids around to fix these flaws. We’re louder, we’re bigger, and we control the chocolate. What’s harder is allowing our kids the freedom, with respect, to call us on things that we do wrong.

In our house, everybody knows my biggest fault. When I’m stressed, I believe it’s my God-given right to make sure that everybody is stressed right along with me. I take that “if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” saying to ridiculous extremes, interpreting every smile as an affront to me if my blood pressure happens to be elevated. In my more lucid moments, I allow everyone to laugh with me about this. And that makes my dysfunctional behaviour, when it occurs, a little easier to take.

I don’t think perfect families exist, but I think healthy families do. And that’s one of the key criteria of a healthy family: being able to speak the truth. The real test of a healthy family doesn’t lie in parents’ 20/20 vision, but in whether parents help their children develop good vision, too. Sure we notice the things they do wrong, but do we let them acknowledge that we, their parents, aren’t perfect, either? Unfortunately, many families like to maintain the illusion of perfection, even if that means denying the truth.

In families where children aren’t allowed to notice flaws, it’s not as if the kids suddenly grow blind to them. They’re just not allowed to do anything about it, or parents subject them to the silent treatment, yell at them or belittle them. Most kids, when experiencing this kind of rejection, run in the other direction, deciding to never question their parents again. They want to be loved, and if being loved means not noticing when others are wrong, then that’s what they’ll do.

Children in families like these grow up learning not to trust their own instincts. To make it even worse, they often have very conflicting feelings about their parents which can never really be resolved, because until you can admit that your parents did wrong, you can’t forgive them for that wrong.

That’s why we need to let our kids work on their vision. They need to be allowed not just to see our imperfections, but also to name them. Of course kids still need to respect us and defer to our authority, which is legitimate. You are the parent, not the best friend. But to imagine that kids will idolize us and never notice anything wrong is doing them a grave disservice. It’s asking them to pretend the world is different from the way it actually is. It’s raising our kids to be liars. And as the old saying goes, it is the truth that sets us free. Even if the truth hurts.

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  1. I’ve spoken with quite a few people on this topic. It’s incredibly important to be transparent about your failures and mistakes as your children become teenagers. That is when their brains can realize there is something “ideal”, something perfect…and you aren’t it. If you continue to pretend as if you are perfect, if you fail to acknowledge any shortcomings, if you berate them for bringing them up, then they learn a new thing: Not only are mom and dad not perfect…they are hypocrites. And that’s where a lot of parents lose their kids. I don’t mean the kids are now lost, or that they leave…but they have lost a huge amount of respect for you, and you have lost a great deal of influence in their lives.

    The #1 thing I advise parents of teenagers to do is be real. Don’t be fake. While I was running youth group, this is the primary complaint I got from kids: their parents were hypocrites, they were two-faced. They said one thing and did another. I heard it from nearly every teen in one form or another. We, as parents, need to learn to apologize to our kids, and to ask for forgiveness from them. It’s a humbling experience, but you might just save your relationship with them.
    Jay Dee – recently posted…Is it okay to track how often you have sex?My Profile

  2. Couldn’t agree more! :) Thanks for re-posting this one.
    Bekah Ferguson recently posted…Is Everything Grey?My Profile

  3. When I read this in 2010, I had one son who was about 2.5 years old. I now have three sons and my oldest is 5.5. I remember wanting my children to feel comfortable enough with me to “call me out” on my faults and me being willing to accept the truth from my children’s lips. About a week ago, around supper time, I asked my 5 year old if we could try to make tomorrow a better day by being more polite to each other. His response: “We (referring to him and his little brother) will try to be more polite mom. And, please, could you try not to yell at us?” Very humbling and heartwarming at the same time.

    Having a newborn and trying to find a new normal and having everyone running of less sleep than usual meant that we had a few “do-over” moments of apologizing to each other and trying to start fresh. This was a good reminder to read. It’s okay to have faults and admit to our children when we’ve treated them poorly. It’s even more amazing when they do the same to you and their siblings!
    Tessa W recently posted…F is for Fatigue: How to Survive on Interrupted SleepMy Profile

    • That’s great that your son said that, because it sounds like he was being respectful at the same time (he said please, after all!). That’s a good thing. I’ve had my kids ask me not to yell so much, too. :)

  4. I’m battling with this one at the moment…. My kids certainly know I’m not perfect!! But I am suffering with Post Traumatic Stress at the moment and know that I’m not being as patient or organised with my 6 and 7yr old boys (I homeschool so we are together ALL day!).
    I want to say sorry for when I have irrational flip-outs but I don’t want them to have to carry any of the emotional burden I am feeling.

  5. Yes, it’s healthy for parents to admit their imperfections to their kids, but kids (like adults) tend to enjoy expressing disapproval. Encouraging them to do talk about their parents’ flaw will only encourage disrespect. I’ve seen it happen many times.
    Jenny recently posted…Thoughts on the Pericope AdulteraeMy Profile

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