Perfect parents may look incredibly happy, posting carefully curated pictures of their flawless children, immaculate homes, and model holidays on social media. However, when it comes to parenting perfectionism, looks are deceiving. Perfectionism is characterized by worries about making mistakes, concerns about what others think, and a sense of incongruence between the perfect version of oneself and one’s actual self (Lin & Szcygiel, 2021). Perfectionism in parenting erodes the bond between parent and child, sets children up for psychological disorders, and robs families of happiness for generations. While striving to be a perfect mother or father may seem harmless, it is the biggest mistake a parent can make.
Being overly critical of oneself as a parent increases the risk of parental burnout, jeopardizing the emotional connection between parent and child (Travers, 2022). In fact, “research suggests parents who are perfectionists and those who put pressure on themselves experience higher rates of burnout” (Sorkkila & Aunola 2020, as cited in Abramson, 2021, para. 42). Equally important are the dire consequences of parenting-induced burnout. Overwhelming feelings of exhaustion and unfulfillment in one’s parental role can cause mothers and fathers to emotionally distance themselves from their children to conserve their energy (Abramson, 2021). As reported by Abramson (2021), when parents reach this stage of burnout, they will often say that they love their children, but they detest being around them and loathe being a parent altogether. Additionally, burnt-out parents confess to fantasizing about walking away from their parenting role, suffering from suicidal ideation, and psychologically or physically maltreating their children (Koslowitz, 2019). The sad irony is that the desire to be a perfect parent creates an imperfect relationship between parent and child. This essential bond would not be eroded if parents stopped pressuring themselves to be anything less than the best.
Children raised by perfectionistic parents who constantly intervene to prevent their kids from making mistakes are at greater risk of developing psychological issues such as low self-esteem and unrealistically high expectations of themselves (Cha, 2016). For instance, research published in the Journal of Personality involving a five-year study of 263 children in Singapore showed that 60 percent of children with highly intervening parents became exceedingly self-critical, resulting in depression, anxiety, and in extreme cases, suicide (Cha, 2016). However, when parents give themselves the freedom to be imperfect, it actually sets their children up for better psychological outcomes later in life. In fact, children raised by mothers and fathers who are open about their flaws and shortcomings learn that it is safe to make errors, and they become more resilient (Schwartz, 2015). “Resilience is the ability to recover from a wide variety of difficulties” (Ivey et al., 2018, p. 272). In other words, resilience helps one cope well with life’s many challenges. While parenting perfectionism sets children up for psychological disorders, being open about parental imperfections, mishaps, and blunders sets one’s child up for happiness and emotional hardiness.
In contrast, allowing perfectionism to dominate one’s thoughts and actions creates generational trauma. “Moreover, by holding their children to exacting standards, mothers and fathers risk passing down this tendency to the next generation for the cycle to repeat” (Cornwall, 2021, para. 3). For example, Roshni Ray Ricchetti, whose parents pushed her to be a high performer, claims to be less critical of her children than her parents were of her, but she admits to being inwardly disappointed that her daughter is not two years ahead in her education compared to other children of the same age (Cornwall, 2021). She worries she is passing along her fear of failure to her three children, and her concern is well-founded. In fact, even when self-critical parents do not outwardly demand perfection from their children, little ones pick up on their parents’ dissatisfaction and become stressed anyway (Hester, 2020). Furthermore, when children are raised in a family where the norm is to criticize other people or things, they grow up believing they must be perfect to be accepted (Cornwall, 2021). This sets up a cycle of multi-generational perfectionism, which deprives families of happiness for years.
In conclusion, research shows us that allowing oneself to be less than the best has many benefits for the parental bond, the child, and the whole family. Rather than trying to cover up their flaws, parents should allow their imperfections to shine. Their kids will see that it is acceptable to make mistakes and that they do not have to be perfect. If parents focus on academic effort instead of results, then kids will be less critical of themselves and others. Instead, they can break the destructive cycle in families and create a ripple effect of inner peace for generations to come. With this in mind, the choice is clear: embrace imperfection because striving to be a perfect parent is the biggest mistake a mother or father can make.
Abramson, A. (2021, October 1). The impact of parental burnout. Monitor on Psychology, 52(7). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/10/cover-parental-burnout
Cha, A. E. (2016, June 27). Your perfectionist parenting style may be detrimental to your child. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/06/27/dear-tiger-mom-your-perfectionist-parenting-style-may-be-detrimental-to-your-child/
Cornwall, G. (2021, July 19). Perfectionism can become a vicious cycle in families. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/07/family-other-oriented-perfectionism-parents-child/619461/
Hester, M. (2020, April 30). Kids pick up on parents’ stress. Contemporary Pediatrics. https://www.contemporarypediatrics.com/view/kids-pick-parents-stress
Ivey, A. E., Ivey, M. B., & Zalaquett, C. P. (2018). Intentional interviewing and counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Koslowitz, R. (2019, September 2). The burnout we can’t talk about: Parent burnout. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/targeted-parenting/201909/the-burnout-we-cant-talk-about-parent-burnout
Lin, G.-X., & Szczygieł, D. (2022). Perfectionistic parents are burnt out by hiding emotions from their children, but this effect is attenuated by emotional intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 184, 111187–. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111187
Schwartz, M. (2015, February 2). Raising resilient children: The key to a happy and successful life for your children. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/shift-mind/201502/raising-resilient-children
Travers, M. (2022, September 12). Is your perfectionism leading to parental burnout? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/social-instincts/202209/is-your-perfectionism-leading-parental-burnout