By Inga Puffer
I’m a parenting book fanatic. During pregnancy, I lived by statistics I learned from Emily Oster. I trusted Ina May to guide me through childbirth. I soothed my infants with Harvey Karp’s five s’s. As my children grow, my reading list lengthens; I need to know how to discipline, educate, and fortify my children for the world.
Last summer, looking for tips to bolster my children’s resilience, I downloaded Brené Brown’s audiobook The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage Compassion and Connection. I expected helpful suggestions, but what I got was a game-changing reality check that is transforming my parenting style and bringing me so much joy.
In her opening chapter, Brown calls into question my hope that reading parenting books will lead to my children having a better life. Brown asserts that “Who we are is a much more accurate predictor of how our kids will do than what we know about the science of parenting.”
I have worked so hard to give my kids fresh fruit, limited screen time, experiences in nature, vocabulary lesson; I strive to meet all the mandates experts say will give my kids the happiest life. But Brené argues that as helpful as manuals may be, “you can’t give your children something you don’t have.” By embracing your imperfection, she suggests, you model for your children that they are enough.
It should seem like common sense: no parenting philosophy can give me the secret to happy children. I’ve been chasing the false hope that if I parent “just right” my kids will have a perfect life. It’s exhausting, but I thought it was worth it until Brown’s book helped me realize that I’ve inadvertently been teaching my kids that there is a “just right” way for them to be. Instead, I want to teach them that they are enough just as they are.
I tell my kids I love them unconditionally, but I often don’t give myself that same grace. After all, I don’t binge-read parenting books just for fun; I do it because I dread making mistakes. My perfectionist parenting comes with underlying anxiety–anxiety that I am passing on to my children.
Brown speaks with such honesty about her journey, that I quickly saw the hard truths she spoke as an invitation to grow. If, as she says, “You can’t love your children more than you love yourself,” then granting myself grace should be my priority. This self-care is not the antithesis of good parenting, but the key.
Thankfully, throughout her book, Brown shares “guideposts,” concrete ways to embrace the reality of imperfection and build resilience. Here are four ways Brown’s ideas have changed my parenting so far.
I rest on purpose.
Brown argues that many people avoid rest because they have been taught to think resting is lazy. I’m one of those people. I never realized I vilified downtime. My to-do list hovers in my thoughts. Guilt looms if I take a break. To work on this, I created a “done” list where I keep track of fun, spontaneous adventures: baking cookies, jogging, or reading a book. The list validates fun, play, and brave adventures.
I replace striving for perfection with striving for joy.
I’m signing my kids up for fewer “impressive” after-school activities. I’m dedicating more time to cultivating habits of fun. Brené suggests dancing, so I am filling our house with show tunes and impromptu dance parties. Following another of Brown’s suggestions, my family recently made a collaborative art project that hangs in our entryway. Every one of my family members painted a bird to represent themselves. They are mismatched, crooked, and adorable.
I sit with hurt.
Instead of trying to think of the magic words to ease my kids’ heartaches, I am attempting to talk less and listen more. I make myself say “That is so hard.” and keep advice and platitudes to myself. I am trying to sit with my kids through painful emotions, trusting that it hurts a little less because we hurt together.
I share my struggles.
I’m choosing bravery in my own life. I’m pursuing writing projects, submitting manuscripts to publishers, and telling my kids how nervous it makes me, and how proud. I’m sharing my struggles when I fall into my old habits of negative self-talk. I’m sharing my failures and my determination to persevere.
I’m still reading parenting books. I value learning from the expertise of others. But I’m fighting the myth that reading will turn me into the perfect parent. I’m fighting the myth that perfect is the goal. I cannot love my children more than I love myself. I repeat this truth as a mantra. This meditation is slowly unraveling my tightly wound expectations and leaving more room for authentic love, joy, and adventure.
Inga Puffer is a teacher who loves to read. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two children.
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