perfection vs. priorities: why parenting values matter

Since I’m on vacation with my family this week, I’ve pulled up an old post out of my archives. I hope you enjoy!

A while back I made a list of the values I hold for my children, myself, my family. It’s a nice, short list, but it sums up the things that are most important to me.

I want my children to learn to be kind, and to view kindness as a normal way of relating to others.

I want my children to be actively and healthfully engaged in the world, the outdoors, and the people around them. This means being outside, interacting with the neighbors and nature around us, and when inside, taking part in a variety of activities rather than just heading right for the XBox. It means eating real food and having real experiences rather than the pre-packaged, pre-digested food and entertainment that’s all too easy to come by these days.

I want my children to know they can come to me with any concern or question and I will really listen. I want them to feel heard and valued.

And yet far too often my actions don’t match up with my priorities.

Too often I allow my children to overhear me being unkind to or about another person. Worse, too often I am unkind to them.

Too often I allow my kids to spend hours staring at various screens because it allows me quiet time to do the things I want or need to do. Too often I just passively let them consume “junk”, whether it’s junk food or junk entertainment, because it’s easier than intervening.

Too often I am distracted, only half-present. Too often I look past the most important people in my life to pay attention to things I don’t care much about at all.

Now, am I sitting here mired in guilt because of this list of realizations? Heck no! I’m not because I know every single person reading this has her own list of “too oftens”. And we are all, I trust, good moms.

I’ve seen a troubling dichotomy in the online parenting world: the “eh” mentality and the “everything matters” mentality. I don’t believe in either. Parenting is too important to casually leave to our least efforts. But every decision is not life or death. To take an example from my list of priorities–I engage in ‘junk’ food and ‘junk’ entertainment myself and don’t really have a problem with my kids watching a crappy TV show or two. It’s only when the junk becomes a way of life–what we’re subsisting on, rather than a snack–that I feel the need to reign my kids and myself back in.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We don’t have to look at our everyday, run-of-the-mill faults and shortcomings and feel tremendous guilt over them. What’s the point? We all miss the mark, we all miss opportunities for greatness.

We also can’t use the reality that none of us are perfect as an excuse to throw our hands up in the air, and say “Oh well!” What is the point of doing anything in life if we aren’t always trying to get better at it?

It’s not about aiming for perfection. Far from it. When my oldest two kids were very small, I aimed for perfection, but fell way short. And I felt a lot of guilt. Truth is, I was surrounding myself with people and Internet personalities I perceived as parenting idols, but the chances that they were as fantastic as they presented themselves to be were just as slim as the chances that I could ever be as fantastic as I thought they were. I tried to do everything “right”, burned out, and did the most important things (like enjoying my life and my kids) all wrong.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the less I try to be perfect, the better a mom I am. That’s because I can focus on the things that really matter to me, not anyone else. Leaving perfection behind allowed me to figure out exactly where my values lie, and try to create a life that puts those values at a high priority.

Note that I am referring to my values. I don’t expect anyone else to have the same ones as I do. All the word “values” means is, those things a person puts a high value on. Your list can be different from mine. But yes, I believe we all need to have a list.

It’s not about putting pressure on myself, or trying to meet some imaginary ideal. Taking stock of where my actions don’t match up with my values is just a good way of keeping myself in check. Yes, I’ll still slip and fall, over and over. But at least I have a bar to reach for when I’m back on my feet. It’s a way of reminding myself of the life I want to live; the life I want to look back on later.

Trying to be perfect gets in the way of following our own personal values. It robs us of the chance to be good enough and tempts us to throw our hands in the air and give up.

The way I see it? Parenting is too important a job to try to do perfectly.

Speaking of perfectionism, I’ll be joining Christine Koh of BostonMamas, Kristin Van Ogtrop of Real Simple, and a panel of smart women at The Motherhood tomorrow, Thursday the 5th of April at 12:00 noon EST, to talk about women and time: how to let go of perfection and allow ourselves to enjoy more free time at home. I hope you’ll pop over and join us!

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