Rethinking perfect

Parents with a difficult child should work toward “appropriate and successful behavior patterns 80 percent of the time … ,” writes Ronald Federici in Help for the Hopeless Child. “Sometimes families expect perfection, which is a totally unrealistic expectation.”

I had just stumbled onto this blurb on Amazon, but it stopped me cold. I wondered, had I been putting unrealistic expectations on our son?

I have always had a tendency to expect a measure of perfection from myself, striving to be the best at whatever skill I practice, and berating myself for social gaffes or work mistakes.

Then I became Mom to a challenging child, and I learned how imperfect life can be. One day could drag on like a week as I waited for my husband to come home from work. On the hardest days, he would not even make it to the threshold before I stormed past him to drive away from our house of chaos, so I could sit under a street lamp somewhere and read a magazine in peace.

But instead of feeling indulgent or triumphant, I felt guilty, like an unfit mother abandoning my charge. Worse yet, sometimes I sat there reliving my mistakes: how I had lost my temper and returned shout for shout, or how I had disappeared into the bathroom to escape into the pages of a book.

Then our therapist shared one of the best parenting statistics ever: if even one out of every three parent-child interactions is positive, the relationship will progress. One out of three. Surely I was good for at least two out of three—heck, I was overachieving! My perfectionist heart was overjoyed.

The ramifications are huge. If one out of three interactions is good enough, I can put more energy into being a good mom than worrying about my missteps. If 80 percent appropriate behavior is acceptable, I can put more energy into praising successes than coming up with consequences and plans for achieving compliance.

This spring we acquired our first dog and, given his quirks, began working with a trainer who has become a good friend. She is not a perfectionist, but if I were to choose a word to associate with her, it would be “Perfect.” It is one of her most frequent responses. If I tell her I can’t meet her at 2, as she suggested, but at 3, she responds, “Perfect.” Or if I tell her the dog has (or I have) fallen off his training regimen, she says we will pick up the pieces, and everything will be “perfect.”

What I have realized is that my friend uses the word “perfect” to describe situations that are nowhere near perfect. But instead of focusing on their flaws, she seems to view them as opportunities to practice flexibility, to learn or just to let things be.

She is onto something. It’s when things are completely wrong that we find the best chance to start over, whether with a quirky dog or a difficult child. Sometimes the toughest moments are the perfect place to begin picking up the pieces, to say, “I’m sorry,” or “You’ll be OK.” Or “Sit.” Or “Stay.”

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