parenting, perfectionism, standards

In praise of lower standards

Someone I don’t know well recently asked me for advice. She has a preschooler and is expecting her second baby. What does she need to know?

I can really only think of one thing to tell her.

Just go ahead and lower your standards. Seriously. Relax your parenting standards. Then you won’t have to feel as guilty when you find they have plummeted on their own without your consent.

Remember how I talked to my first child all the time? Wore him around in a sling at the grocery store and chatted in a lively fashion about all the produce? Counted everything out loud and sang “Old MacDonald” all the time with all the signs for each animal and usually remembered to narrate out loud what I was doing as I did it?

Look, Mama is unloading the dishwasher! This is a cup, see? A cup! This cup goes in the cabinet…

Well, now I have a preschooler, a very smart, well-adjusted, happy preschooler. Good job, me, for doing all those things so well. My preschooler is on the path to a wonderful, successful life.

Unfortunately, my preschooler has also come to expect certain things. Like my constant attentiveness when he is talking. And now that he has so much more to say, I’m having a hard time keeping that up. Never mind that the babies are wailing and that I have had to pee since 7:00 AM. The Boy wants to talk about Pocoyo videos he was watching this morning, and I had better listen. Or he wants to use the computer to research which planets have rings and he needs my help. Or he wants to listen to music and isn’t allowed to use the iPod without supervision. Or he wants to paint the bathtub with fingerpaint.

(Okay, I admit those are all my fault. We sometimes bribe him with videos when he wakes up at the crack of dawn so we can sneak a few more minutes of sleep {and Pocoyo is pretty harmless, if you’ve never seen it}. We also told him that you can find the answer to almost any question you have if you do research on the internet, and now he always wants to look things up. We got him hooked on real music from an early age, so he wants to use our iPods to listen to the Beatles and Queen and Paul Simon. And yeah, I have let him fingerpaint the tub before, so I really have no case for saying “no.” I don’t feel like cleaning the bathtub, though, so it will probably just stay painted until someone takes a shower in there, maybe later this week?)

My babies are simply not getting the level of supervision, care, and careful attention to their language development that The Boy received. The Belle has ingested all manner of things off the carpet since she started crawling a few weeks back. I pulled a tiny screw, a plastic hangtag, some grass, and a bent Christmas tree hook out of her mouth just in a three-day span. Who knows what she has actually swallowed? She and The Bug have stolen and eaten french fries. They’ve had ice cream, too, and they didn’t have to steal it – I gave it to them. If The Boy is watching PBS Kids, they are seeing it, too. There’s an exersaucer in my living room now, and some of the toys on it are (gasp) battery operated. They light up and make noise.

As we have established, they don’t even get baths that often. We just kind of wipe them off as long as they aren’t really stinky. 

Who would have thought I would become the type of mother that tolerated such things?

The thing is, it’s really fine. All of it. I have become the poster child for “just relax, no one is going to die.” Honestly, even if The Belle had somehow swallowed that hook, she would have been okay.

I do have my hands full. They are full. And when I get a spare moment, sometimes I like to take a shower or drink a Diet Coke or just sit and stare out the window and try not to fall asleep. I no longer have the time or energy to research the relative comfort of car seat padding and find out which kids’ juice company uses the organic farm with the happiest apple trees.

We buy healthy food and we try to keep our kids safe and to provide good experiences for them.

You probably do those things, too.

And I think it’s time we let ourselves off the hook a bit.

Raising children the optimal way has become a seriously competitive thing. Brain research has shown that early childhood is a very important part of human development, certainly more important than people used to think. So now, there’s an entire market just dedicated to the types of designer products we are supposed to be using to raise the happiest, smartest, healthiest, most well-adjusted kids in the history of the world.

The thing is, all the organic birch teething rings and fair-trade hand-woven cotton swaddling blankets in the world can’t ensure that everything will turn out perfectly.

It’s not within our power to engineer our children’s early years with an absolute guarantee that they will turn out just exactly right. All we can do is the best we can do (which, in my case, varies somewhat from day to day and might depend on whether I had coffee in the morning).

With this in mind, I’m going to trust that God gave my kids the mother they needed when he gave them me, and I’m going to hope that God can stretch what I have to offer so that it’s enough on the days when my parenting is not as amazing.

My own mother has a Mary Engelbreit calendar hanging in the guest bedroom (the one we sleep in every time we visit). It’s still open to the month of May. I’m glad, though, because every time I see it, I am reminded that “there’s no way to be a perfect mother, but a million ways to be a good one.”


How true.
(That woman looks pretty perfect to me, though. Maybe it’s because she seems to have misplaced her second baby and therefore has a hand free to help hold the book for her preschooler.)

If we have days when we can’t be “good” mothers, we can take comfort in being “good enough”…after all, we will more than make up for it on the other days when we are absolutely wonderful.

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