Have you ever felt like an imperfect parent? Maybe even a failure? I know the feeling. I have. But I also have good news. Our children are wise, even from a young age. They don’t need perfect parents. They need parents with a sincere intent to love. To better understand this, imagine a scenario with me.
An adult sits down to show a 24-month-old toddler a toy car. The adult pushes the car until it bumps into a tiny block to the right of the toddler. Nothing happens. Then he pushes the toy car into a block on the toddler’s left. The toy car lights up. The toddler watches as the adult rolls the car back and forth, bumping into the block to the right where nothing happens and the block to the left, where the car lights up. Then he turns the car over to the toddler. The toddler plays with the car but only bumps it into the block on the left, causing the toy car to light up. The toddler only initiates the behavior with the interesting result.
Now imagine an 18-month-old watching a person whose arms are wrapped up in a blanket. The person whose arms are wrapped up is trying to make a box light up, but they can’t move their arms. So, they tap the box with their head and so succeed in lighting up the box. The 18-month-old toddler, whose hands are free, simply reaches out and touches the box with his hand to make it light up. The toddler looked beyond the mere action of the person who “used their head.” He assessed the goal of turning on the light, considered the person’s limitations (arms wrapped up), and then chose the most efficient way to achieve the same end. Our children are wise. (These studies are described in The Gardner and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnick, pages 97-101).
All in all, children are geniuses. They don’t just mimic another person’s behavior. They look beyond the outward appearance of a behavior to assess the intent of the behavior, the goal of the action. They recognize what the person is trying to accomplish and determine the most efficient way to achieve it.
What does this have to do with being an imperfect parent? Our children can look beyond our imperfections and shortcomings to see our deeper intent, our true goals. Our every action does not need to be perfect. Our words and our responses can fall short as long as our motives and intents are sincere and virtuous. Our children will look past our imperfections to see our love, our loving goal for them to become mature, responsible people.
So rather than asking if our every parental action is perfect (because they aren’t and never will be), we need to ask if the intent of our actions and the aim of our behavior are loving and virtuous. We need to ask ourselves:
- Are we responding to our children from a place of sincere love? Can they see the delight that we have for them in our eyes?
- Our children’s misbehavior often leads to frustration. Even when frustrated over misbehavior, do we strive to let our discipline flow from a place of grace and love, a desire to teach our children correct behavior versus punishing poor behavior?
- Watching our children grow and take risks (even the risk of leaving for college) can arouse our fears. Do we let our fears control us or do we continue to act from a place of kindness, vulnerability, and truth? (It is vulnerable to express our fears in a healthy manner.)
- When our children excitedly tell us about their passions, do we patiently listen from a place of genuine interest or a half-hearted effort to pacify?
- Do we make it our goal to consistently treat our children with the respect we expect them to show toward us or do we disrespectfully “bark out orders” and ignore their concerns?
We will make mistakes. We are imperfect. But when we approach our children and interact from a place of respect, patience, kindness, and love, our children will look beyond our mistakes and act upon our true intent. They will respond, in the long run, to our love.