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The Perils of Perfection

We recently got new furniture and carpeting in the family room. I love everything about new stuff: the smell of it, how it almost glows with lack of human contact. It’s pristine, pure, perfectly clean. Then the inevitable first spill comes . . . and I breathe a silent sigh of relief.

The perfect period is over, and now we can go back to living. There’s no more tension, no more being extra careful. Perfection, after all, is a pretty high standard to be held to.

That’s why I’ve always loved my children unconditionally, encouraged them unconditionally and praised them for their efforts regardless of outcome. I’ve made a point of not expecting them to be perfect. Instead I’ve taught them to be kind, and fair, and respectful, and helpful. And in an effort to model these values, I’ve gotten very successful at hiding my own flaws, my own insecurities, my own mistakes. They don’t need to see those. They need positive, successful role models, of which I am one.

When I would tuck my son in at night and he’d tell me I was the best mommy in the whole world, I would beam with pride. Yes, I would think, I am doing a good job.

Yet when my children are devastated by a wrong answer on a test, or terrified that I might be angry when they spill a glass of milk, I am completely befuddled. Why do they react like this? I never yell at them for making mistakes, never lose my temper over torn pants or muddy shoes—so why are they so hard on themselves?

The answer finally hit me recently when I swore in front of my daughter, which I can honestly say had not happened until that point. I was mortified. I couldn’t apologize enough, and I berated myself for hours. And suddenly I knew where they got it from.

They’re perfectionists because of me. Not because of what I say, but because of what I do...or in this case, don’t do.

I never let my children see me fail. I never let them see me fall short, or make a mistake, or deal with the consequences of making a mistake or bad judgment. And while I’d love to say that’s because it never happens, most people know otherwise. It happens all the time. I just hide it well.

I may not overtly expect perfection, but the mere fact that I never let them see me fail implies it. By modeling “perfect” behavior for my children so that they grow up happy and guilt-free and shame-free, I’ve created the opposite—an environment where, despite my unconditional love, the need for perfection is omnipresent. And that can only set them up for disappointment, in life and in themselves.

Now I’m facing one of my life’s great ironies: My children demand perfection of themselves because they think they have a perfect mother, which is so far from the truth as to be laughable. So what do I do now? How can I begin to teach my children to love themselves as unconditionally as I love them?

I need to start being me again, I think. I need to show my kids who I am, and let them see me fail once in a while. They think that I don’t fail; I have a box of rejections to show them that proves otherwise. But it also proves that I try. I’ve always told them to try their best and I’ll be happy; now I need to show them how that works.

I need to let them see me struggle, maybe, with my weight or self-esteem issues. By hiding them, I’m showing my kids either that my problems aren’t worthwhile or that they’re shameful. What I should be showing them instead is that everyone has issues and they can be dealt with and they’re a part of life.

I want to show them my failures and disappointments, and then show them how to recover and move on. How can they learn to let things go if they have no example? I no longer think I need to protect them from disappointments; I merely need to show them it’s OK to be disappointed, and to go forward.

And I’m going to show them that I’m human, and flawed, and still completely worthy of love. That no one is perfect, and that’s fine, because we can still be great. We can still be smart, and passionate, and sympathetic, and caring, and funny. I’m going to show them that I really AM the best mommy in the world, by gathering them in my arms on our brand new furniture.

And spilling on it.

Maggie Lamond Simone is a book author, award-winning writer and mother of two living in Baldwinsville. Reach her at

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