My wife is a “reformed” perfectionist. Earlier, she used to take it as a compliment, but now we both understand it is not, and she has worked hard at changing this trait. We have a four-year-old and a 10-year-old. I fear my wife has been (and I have let her be) extremely critical and demanding of our older child, in her bid to make her a perfect kid. I feel particularly bad about our insistence on cleanliness and tidiness. We used to make our daughter dust her room (every object in it), straighten it up, put her clothes and toys in designated places only, once a day from the time she turned 6. There have been times when we have stopped her from joining her friends and cousins for an outing because she hadn’t tidied her room, etc. While we have stopped this kind of thing, is there some way in which we can reverse the harm we may have done—and what exactly could be the harm done? She seems a sunny child, but isn’t so confident.
It’s really good that the perfectionism was caught, recognized, accepted and worked on. That’s no small task! Typically, a perfectionist is an over-controlling, fearful and anxious person, for whom appearance is everything. Once she (and you with her) has “dismantled” this construct, she is actually now freed from her own extremely insistent “should” and “shouldn’t”, and free to be a more instinctive and ultimately more loving parent and person.
Clean sweep: Don’t use household chores to discipline your child.
You ask what harm may have been done. Well, children of perfectionists grow up to be hypercritical of themselves, feeling inadequate and emotionally empty. And most importantly (and sadly), they are made to believe that love is completely conditional and dependent on their behaving extremely “well”; so they are almost always anxious to please. They tend to feel that the opinions of others are far more important than their own. They often feel that the world is watching and judging them. They carry this into their adult relationships and their own parenting patterns too.
But your child has been fortunate to be “let off the hook” very early. As for what you can do to reverse things, first, rest assured that the calling off of the demanding and uncompromising agenda itself must be going a long way in getting your child back into a more relaxed and less judged state.
However, having said that, yes, there are a few things you could do—one is to find an age-appropriate way to let her know that some of those things that you insisted on before are not that important any more. There’s no need to go into abject apology mode—more important is to let her know in your own way that there is a permanent change and jettisoning of some of those demands that were made on her. If she probes further, you could tell her that her mother and you at that time thought it was important, but have grown to understand things differently now. Second, find ways to reiterate (non-verbally) the vibe that you love her unconditionally—that is the area that usually suffers a big dent when a child has had to deal with a perfectionist parent. Also, help your wife get past the guilt that may be troubling her, and help her with the one thing that “reformed perfectionists” need help with: to accept and continue to believe that children have to learn their own lessons, and that fast-forwarding things and providing pre-digested behaviour guidelines is not parenting at all.
I am a retired schoolteacher. My niece, who lives with us, has a two-year-old child. She as well as her husband read a lot on parenting, child psychology, etc. I find that they apply what they read too rigidly or bookishly, and don’t seem to allow themselves a more instinctive understanding of their child’s needs. Like if he wets his bed, she connects it up to the fact that she refused to take him out the previous evening, and so he was upset and so he “acted out” by wetting the bed. I feel she is not tuned to his simple appetite and toilet-training issues—which I feel are more important than applying book theories, don’t you think? How do I step in without interfering?
Yes, anxious to be tuned to their child’s psyches, many times young parents tend to overlook or even ignore some simple but vital physical factors, in their insistence on interpreting everything psychologically.
By passing all behaviour through the “psychological filter”, they hope to get to the bottom of every little nuance so that they can be good parents. Sometimes, however, as you feel, one can overdo it, and lose one’s natural parenting skills. As an older and wiser person, perhaps you can see that sometimes a baby needs his/her parents to understand simple things such as “thirsty”, “hungry”, “not-hungry”, “sleepy” or “soggy diaper”. You could gently tell your niece that while the books may have some important points, she should develop and trust her own instincts too. You could help her to feel more confident about her instincts but for that, she needs to feel that it’s better and completely okay to make a few mistakes in interpreting baby behaviour, than become artificial and academic in her response to her child.
You could put across the idea that children need to feel that their parents know what they’re doing, rather than that their parents are following the “correct” formula. Chat with her and get her to understand that parenting books are not manuals—they’re meant for guidance.
If you don’t want to spell all this out, you could communicate this by subtly demonstrating your own ease and quiet confidence in handling her baby or interpreting his needs. It’s always confidence-inspiring to see an older person calmly attending to a baby without fretting or worrying or consulting any book! Needless to say, don’t actively pooh-pooh the books right now, as they are perhaps her “scriptures” during this anxious-to-get-it-all-perfectly-right stage of being a parent.
More important, both parents, quite naturally, are terrified of making what they worry will be irreversible mistakes, and that’s why their over-dependence on the written word. This is where your kind and subtle input will make a difference—allaying their fears and hesitation, and encouraging them to go by instinct to better attune themselves to their child’s real needs. It may also help if some of this comes from parents of slightly older children around them, who will have recently gone through the stages of going by the book, and then learning to trust their own instincts and the specific needs— psychological as well as physical—of their child.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
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