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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.