The Infallible Parent
The boys come running into the house, never hearing the command, never noticing the dog that is trying its best to escape as they enter. There is no time to stop and gently close the door. It slams, barely missing the family pet. The dog jumps back and wets on the floor.
“Didn’t I tell you not to slam the door? Now look what you caused!”
The youngest boy is grabbed by the shirt and jerked across the room, handed a roll of paper towels and told to clean up after the dog. Mom lets go of his shirt and adds a little push to the movement. The boy falls backward against the corner of the counter, receiving a small cut at the corner of his eye.
Mom yells, “Look what you made me do! If you would just listen, things like this wouldn’t happen.”
While there are many little events that add to the scene, mom definitely needs to be more in control of her emotions. The situation veers out of control under her guidance and she does not want to take responsibility. She knows that, regardless of the fact that her over-active sons were the catalyst for the situation, she is responsible for the damage to her son’s eye. Her lack of self-control caused the actual injury. Until then, the situation could be fixed with a few paper towels. The damage – not just physical, but emotional – is much harder to repair at this point.
We all have bad days and we all have our pet peeves. So how do we know when we are caught in the trap of expecting ourselves to be an infallible parent?
Infallible parents believe that they must always be right. This does not necessarily mean that they believe that they ARE always right, just that they have the expectation of themselves that they should always be right. Often the idea that they must be infallible comes from exceptionally high expectations that were set for them by their own parents. Sometimes this drive to be infallible stems from a personality trait such as perfectionism. Often the need to be infallible comes from the misplaced idea that they must be perfect in order to be loved. It is often hard for these parents to admit when they are wrong, thus they rarely apologize. They keep relationships – even those with their children – at arm’s length because it is easier to promote an infallible façade if you don’t allow anyone to get too close.
Children of parents who believe they must be infallible often feel that they, too, must be infallible. The pressure to succeed and to excel is intense. It is well-known that children learn best when they learn by example. A parent who can’t admit their own mistakes and apologize is a poor example to emulate. We all know that apologies go a long way in mending fences; one that cannot apologize often creates rifts that are never repaired. Kept at a distance from their parents, critical communication skills in children of infallible parents go undeveloped. Perhaps most importantly, children raised by infallible parents sometimes lean toward one extreme or the other when it comes to relationships, either creating barriers to hold people at a distance or allowing excessive closeness in relationships in the search for validation.
If you believe that you might be in the trap of the infallible parent, then you should carefully examine a few aspects of yourself. Do you have deep anxiety over every-day mistakes or can you correct them and shrug them off with ease? Do you have trouble admitting and apologizing for your mistakes? Do you find yourself seeking another person or the circumstance on which to place blame? Do you worry excessively about how you will handle a situation or person, or obsess over what you could have done better? There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve ourselves and our interactions with others, but when it comes to the point where we become obsessive, striving for constant perfection, then we have a problem.
First, infallible parents must learn to accept that they will never be perfect. Our children need to see that we are human. We have good days and bad days; how we handle them is the important lesson we need to teach. Our children do look to us for how to deal with the situations that arise in life. If we obsess, over-stress and portray the inability to accept our mistakes, apologize and move on, that is the lesson that we will teach.
I have a friend who believes that she is supposed to be the perfect mother. She never apologizes to her children because she believes that if she admits her mistakes, then her perfect façade is ruined. One day she witnessed my apology to one of my daughters for forgetting contact lens solution at the drug store. Our conversation never struck me as being of any major importance, but in the eyes of my friend, I had portrayed myself as weak to my daughter and given my daughter “permission” to use that weakness against me as she saw fit. I strongly disagree.
Most individuals with the belief that they must be infallible acquire that inclination from a previous experience in life, whether it is parents who expected perfection, an ex-spouse or another over-bearing influence in their life. It can be very difficult to overcome these learned responses on our own. Once we have accepted that we need to re-learn our expectations and how to respond to situations in life, we may find that we need help in doing so. There is no shame in acquiring individual or family counseling to deal with this new revelation in our lives.
When we realize that no one is perfect and that all of us live with imperfection on a daily basis, we reach a point in life which is much happier and more stress-free – for us and our children.
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