Why We Need to Protect Our Kids from Us

What if the thing we really need to protect our children from is our own protectiveness?


Photo Credit: cx1uk via Compfight cc

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we were living in rural Pennsylvania. The nearest State Police headquarters was thirty miles away. I drove the distance to verify I’d installed our new car seat correctly. Two months before my son was born. As parents, our protective instinct is a good and essential thing. But three kids later, I’m wondering:

Is my protectiveness the very thing from which my kids need to be protected?

The Ways We Protect

Everything in our children’s lives is orchestrated for safety. We have genetic tests and multiple ultrasounds before they are born to ensure their health. We have side air bags, and high-tech car seats they’re supposed to sit in for the first four years. We have safety recalls on chewing devices and play toys and the cribs they sleep in. We have helmets to protect them against head injury. We’ve developed protocols to protect against school shootings. We don’t let them walk home from school alone for fear of an Amber Alert.

We’ve got their physical safety on lockdown.

So what do we do next with our protective instinct?

We try to perfect our children because, deep down, we believe perfection is protection. From each other. If we are flawless, we leave no chinks in the armor. The more perfect we are, the more likely we are to come out on top in the game of social comparison. If our kids are perfect, we hope it will protect them from peer rejection, poor self-esteem, disappointments in life, and the pain of being human.

The problem is, perfectionism itself is dangerous.

Don’t Waste Your Time

The best advice my seven-year-old son has ever received didn’t come from me or my wife or a teacher. It came from his eleven-year-old brother. During the first week of school this year, my wife asked my oldest if he had any words of wisdom for his little brother about how to approach school.

My son replied instantly.

He said, “Don’t try to be perfect. I tried to do things perfectly for two years and it made me miserable. Perfect is a waste of time. Try as hard as you can. That’ll be good enough.”

Perfect is a waste of time.

It’s unattainable, because life sends everything in the other direction. Our bodies naturally sag, our performance gets slower and more flawed, and all of our stuff eventually breaks. And even in the rare moments when we do close up all the gaps in our armor, perfection doesn’t make us happy. It makes us lonely. Because perfect walls are still walls, and walls separate and isolate.

The anxious father who wanted a car seat checked two months before it was needed is still inside of me. And now that father wants to protect my kids’ hearts from the next emotional crash. But I’m going to listen to my son. Instead of inviting our kids to be perfect, let’s invite them to be human, instead.

Inviting Our Kids to be Human

Let’s leave our kids a little unprotected emotionally. Let’s let them know it’s okay to feel sad, it’s okay to feel lonely, it’s okay to be worried, and it’s okay to feel a little raw and tender.

When they fail, let’s congratulate them for trying, for showing up, for risking, and for putting themselves on the line.

When they fall flat on their face, let’s congratulate them for taking a leap.

When they crash, let’s tell them we believe in them and we believe they can get back on.

When they play messy, let’s play messy with them.

When they act like a kid, let’s remember they are one, and then invite them to grow up, not grow perfect.

Let’s show them that embracing imperfection doesn’t mean you no longer belong, it means you no longer feel like you have to do it all on your own. And then let’s be there to join them.

Let’s show them it’s okay to apologize, by doing it ourselves when we wish we’d done better. Let’s show them life isn’t ruined by mistakes; it’s ruined by invulnerability, by the inability to admit when we’ve been wrong, by the effort keep everything perfect and pristine.

Let’s remember what my kids remember most fondly—laughter at our own mistakes.

And, of course, let’s remember we’re going to be imperfect at all of this, as well—our protection and perfectionism will sneak back in and ambush us, over and over again. When that happens, let’s start over again, because that may be the best way of all to show them it’s okay to be imperfect.

Maybe that’s the best way to invite them to be human, too.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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27 thoughts on “Why We Need to Protect Our Kids from Us

  1. It’s a great piece, and much needed, but it’s usually really tough to discern a difference between “trying to be perfect” (bad) vs. “trying as hard as you can” (good). Anybody else struggle with this?

    • I think what you are describing is something that many highly competent, high achieving people struggle with: when your best efforts are outstanding, doing your best soars very near perfectionism. The crucial thing seems to be in acknowledging even the supermen and -women among us can’t be at 100% all the time — and that even the best efforts will occasionally fall prey to subpar outcomes. None of it is worth beating yourself up over.
      For my part, I’m going to choose to celebrate that your best efforts are so often successful that they can tempt you to reach for the perfection beyond.

      • It’s a great question, Naomi. I’d echo what Shel said and add that perfect tends to be outcome based and our best effort tends to be more heart based. Perfect gets tangled up with anxiety, best effort probably involves more enjoyment. When we strive for perfect and fail we tend to beat up on ourselves, when we try to give our best effort and fail, we forgive ourselves and try again next time. Random thoughts late at night; for what it’s worth!

        • I absolutely love your distinction between outcome based perfectionism and heart based best efforts, Kelly.
          Thanks, Naomi, for the question that drew this clarification!

  2. Right on. Perfect is a waste of time, and it’ll make you miserable.
    And I think you are so right about the importance of offering encouragement in the face of life’s setbacks and failures.
    However, I believe that part of sharing this messy existence with our kids is sharing those real and legitimate feelings of disappointment and sadness — giving them our stories of times we felt very much like they do now. Because they don’t need rescuing from feeling their feelings in the moment; they need validation that their feelings are legitimate and assurance that this too will pass.
    Thank you, Kelly, for this morning’s contemplation and for keeping me mindful.

    • I think you’re right on, too, Shel! When we can mirror our children with our own difficult experiences, they feel less alone in their crummy feeling, which is probably what they are all wanting to feel to begin with!

  3. Very wise words, and right on target. I know my life thus far would have been so much easier if I had realized this growing up. The anxiety produced by pushing oneself to be “perfect”, and the depression that comes from not realizing that no one is perfect, make life so much more difficult than it needs to be.

  4. Good words! I started following your blog several weeks ago, but I am hard pressed to give my time to reading blogs. Yours made the cut today!
    I think it’s because I’m that dad. I’m the one who sees the messiness and craziness and imperfectness in my life, my house, and my family, and I go to “the-only-way-to-fix-this-mess-is-to-close-up-all-the-gaps” mode. I have 6 kids-it’s a reasonable strategy for me to become the iron giant in order to not be swallowed up in full-blown household anarchy, right?
    But God’s working on this in me. Perfect IS a waste of time; and it’s impossible. One thing I’ve had to learn again and again is that parenting is about bringing a young person along on a journey I’m still traveling. It’s life. It’s never perfect, it’s often messy, and it’s meant to be done together.
    Thank you!

    • Well said, Matt. And wow, six little ones! You are like Obi-Wan to my Anakin. I love what you said about bringing them along on a journey.

  5. I agree with the sentiment and I think its great to let go of perfectionism but I think with kids in school theres a lot of peer perfectionism at work, which can have a powerful effect on the vunerable. Like not having the right hair style, or clothes or being a bit overweight or not being a good athlete.
    I remember when I was growing up, playing sports in school or for the local team the pressure to be perfect was massive. It wasnt a culture that accepted mistakes. If you messed up you would be berated by team mates and more significanlty, by the adults in charge. It got to the point where kids where absolutley terrified of making mistakes which led to them playing it saf, not taking risks and ultimately losing anyway.
    I think parents should definitely encourage their own kids to ditch perfectionism but that needs to be fostered in schools amongst children themselves. Kids need to be allowed to make mistakes by their peers but also by the adults in charge.

    • Good point, Eoin. I think ideally, we can help our kids to internalize the freedom we give them to make mistakes. So when they face perfectionism and condemnation out in the world, what they carry within them can withstand that. But I sure haven’t figured all that out yet. It breaks my heart when my kids go out and get hurt by messages that are the opposite of what they receive at home.

  6. Thank you again, Kelly, for another great post. I don’t have kids, but I can relate to the desire and waste of time to wanting and striving to be perfect. You have a very wise son who gave great advice to his younger brother. Must take after his daddy!! 🙂 I think we would all be so much better off if we just taught others and reminded ourselves that perfection doesn’t exist. In striving to reach it we will inevitably lose out on the wonders and beauty and pleasure that life has to offer us.

    • Jenny, the same son said to me yesterday, after listening to a conversation between me and my wife, “It’s too bad you’re such a slave to your routines that you can’t make changes that are good for you.” Sometimes he’s too smart for his own good. : )

  7. Yes! Let’s model for them that it’s ok to be wrong, to have emotions, to fail. That way, when their life is not perfect (and it won’t be) they’ll know how to deal with it. Let’s equip them for real life!

  8. I remember being unable to cope with my infant son receiving his immunizations. His cries of pain sent me over the edge. I made my husband take him in to the nurse because I couldn’t handle it that he was hurting. I couldn’t stop it nor could I find the perspective to tell myself it would be over quickly and he would probably forget all about it long before I ever did. And that desire to protect him has always been with me. Even now that he is a grown man. I still have to take control of myself and let him experience his own life even when it isn’t pretty.

    • “Let him experience his own life.” What a great way of putting it. And it can be so hard to do. Frederick Buechner, in “Now and Then” writes beautifully of the unique suffering of a parent, who has so little control over the thing they treasure the most, their child.

  9. It’s taken me a long time to realize, but I believe we do our kids a disservice when we shoot for perfection – for us and for them. Life isn’t perfect. Relationships aren’t perfect. Someday they will experience the messiness of life, so we might as well expose them gently at home first.

    My son’s kindergarten teacher used to say “did you do your best work?” and I guess that’s what it comes down to for me. Not is it right, wrong or perfect, but did we do our best? It makes me think of helicopter parenting – when we hover too much, our kids don’t learn the skills they need for the outside world.

    Long response to say I agree with your perspective and as always, love the post! Thank you!

  10. I think we often over-look the value of adversity. It is easy to forget.
    I live in Colorado Springs, CO. In 2012 & 2013 our area has been hit with forest fires that destroyed homes and displaced people for a number of days. It was really hard on the families impacted, including mine. But here’s what I found interesting; When people were forced from their homes or faced with losing them entirely, the most-common response to that event was to reach out in concern for others! The outpouring of support from people not directly impacted was the same. We started acting like we cared.
    Colorado Springs is a large city and we have people from all over who live here, often temporarily. It isn’t noted for a sense of community. There are different pockets, but not an over-all sense. Too big.
    But when the fires hit, we all forgot about that non-sense looked out for each other. We “raised our game” in a way that still brings tears to my eyes when I think of it.
    Almost all of us became better human beings (at least for a short time) and the only reason we did so was because of the adversity.

  11. This is very cool, also because you illustrate in kid-speak, and don’t make vulnerability sound easier and more poetic than it can be at times. And/but yes, perfect is a waste of time…so thanks for this at a good time of year for it….

  12. Hola: Empecé a leer este artículo porque me sentía muy mal debido a que mi hijo no aprobó una materia de su ingreso a la universidad. Me preguntaba en que me había equivocado, si quizás no lo había acompañado lo suficiente, pero después de leer esta nota, la verdad me alivió ya que se que tiene que hacer su propia experiencia y que aprenderá de la misma. Tengo que seguir trabajando duro en en no transmitirle mi frustración. Muchas gracias. Cariños. Teresa

  13. When it comes to protecting kids from those would/or might intentionally harm us/our kids, that’s good! (Understatement of the year!) I also think we can try to protect our kids so we appear to outsiders to be perfect parents. For example a neighbor’s “greatest fear” realized (lice) is the false illusion of control and the false illusion of perfection. To be lice-free is a great goal, but we know better, don’t we?There are more important things…like abuse of all types… My job is to be a “Steward of Children” and care of those entrusted to me, and also help educate those around me about “honorable” fears.

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