Parenting  •  July 23, 2009

Perfect Parent Syndrome

I was in a casual meeting of parents where we discussed various parenting issues. It became immediately obvious to me that many parents were concerned about not being perfect parents. Through listening to their individual stories, I began to notice a certain pattern. Those who are feeling guilty for not being perfect seem to have had difficult childhood and have blamed their parents for their difficulties. This appears to be more than a coincidence.

Think about it: In your 20′s and 30′s (before you had your own children), if you blamed your parents for all your problems, you have already set up high expectations for what parents should do and how they should be. Once you have a child of your own, the table is turned; now you are a potential target of your own criticisms. You need to live up to the standards that you have set for your own parents. As you begin to realize that some of those standards are untenable, you begin to feel like a failure. Even though we all know that nobody is perfect, in this specific scenario, perfection is a concept that you yourself created for your own parents. So, the failure to be “perfect” is not something you can brush off as a figure of speech. It can lead to depression and despair.

In order to believe in the notion of “perfect” parent, we would have to give a lot of credit to ourselves and very little credit to our children. We would have to believe that we are highly influential, and that parenting follows the principle of cause and effect. On one hand, this is very flattering and egotistically satisfying because it would mean that our children are sort of like our own artworks that we can sign once they are complete. We would be able to take credit for any successes that they achieve in their adulthood. On the other hand, this is also frightening. If they turn out to be a serial killer, we would be responsible for creating them.

In Japan, they take this view to the extremes. Whenever there is a hostage situation, the police often bring the parents of the hostage takers to the site, no matter how old they are, and try to have the parents convince the hostage-takers to give up. In Japan, parents are often seen as being responsible for their children all their lives.

In some ways, it’s a fair deal because it is common for the young Japanese people to receive monthly allowance from their parents even in their late 20′s, and for elders to be fully taken care of by their children. My parents are rare exceptions to this. They cut me off financially as soon as I graduated from college, and I feel no sense of obligation to take care of them in their old age (and they have no expectation of it either).

In comparison, the American culture places more responsibility on individuals. After a certain age, even if your child turns out to be a serial killer, you wouldn’t have to feel so guilty (in Japan, your life would be completely ruined, and so you might as well commit suicide). This is why I was rather surprised to hear so many parents feeling guilty for not being perfect enough.

I personally feel that our daughter Annika would be fine with or without me. We have a running joke in our family that the worst case scenario is not my death but me being disabled because my life insurance would not pay out if I just became disabled (I don’t have any disability insurance).

I also do not feel like I need or should teach her anything either. Annika teaches me many things without her intending to do so. Similarly, I think she simply learns from me without me intending to do so. Whatever I intend to teach her, probably would not teach her anything. So, why bother intending?

In some ways, this is a fair deal too. Beyond providing basic necessities and a generally happy environment, I don’t feel any responsibility for how Annika grows up. She would deserve all the credit for any successes that she achieves in her life. She would be her own person, not a product of my parenting philosophy. I hope that someday she would feel proud and entitled to sign her own name to her own life.