I used to be a perfect parent.
I had strong opinions about the best way to raise a happy, healthy, well-mannered child. I vowed that my children would appear well groomed and clean at all times. They would be disciplined by firm, fair, and consistent parenting techniques and they would always, always, be well behaved in a restaurant. And when they were older, I would instill a sense of self-confidence and mutual respect by showing them that I valued their opinions and by treating them as equals. My ideas were so straightforward and simple that I couldn't understand why other parents couldn't be as perfect as I was.
Then I had children.
I used to think that any mother whose child was dressed in mismatched clothes and had Kool-Aid stains around his lips before eleven o'clock in the morning was obviously an unfit parent who spends all day talking on the phone and serves Froot Loops and Popsicles for breakfast. My opinion changed when my daughter turned 2 and decided that she no longer wanted to wear clothing in public.
One minute she would be fully dressed, innocently sucking on a pacifier in her stroller. The next, she'd be waving at strangers wearing only a diaper and a pair of red patent leather shoes. The first few times this happened I put her clothes back on—only to have them flung at me again two seconds later. After several days of struggling to keep her fully dressed, I finally decided that it would be less stressful and much faster if she just started out naked when we left the house.
I also used to think that parents who let their children watch cartoons instead of doing enriching activities together like reading lacked self-discipline and motivation. This was before I began daydreaming about how great it would be if my 4-year-old son stopped making big messes around the house and did nothing but watch TV.
I could picture the peacefulness of it all. There would be no toys to pick up, no Play-Doh to peel out of the carpet, and no crayons to remove from nostrils. Besides, I figured if he got really hooked on a few afternoon PBS programs, I might even have time to do things like put on a real pair of shoes with laces or finish a complete thought.
Before I had children I was going to be a good, health-conscious parent. My family would only eat organic produce and dairy products, fresh fruit, yeast-free bread, and unmedicated free-range turkey. Sugar would never, ever touch their lips.
I changed my mind when I brought my daughter to the grocery store for the first time by myself, and she refused to bend her legs so she could fit into the front seat of the shopping cart. "If you get in the cart Mommy will give you part of the nice candy bar she has in her purse," I whispered desperately in her ear.
This tactic worked well until she had eaten all of the candy. Then she decided the trip would be much more interesting if she got out of the cart and flung all of the food off of the shelves as she ran down the aisles. So I did what any other modern, educated mother would do: I desperately started tossing junk food into the cart. She ate the box of mini donuts in the dairy aisle and munched on fistfuls of caramel corn in the produce section. The Tootsie Pop sucker gave me just enough time to get through the register, out the door, and back to my car.
As I loaded bags full of empty boxes and wrappers into my trunk, it occurred to me that the only obstacles keeping me from being a perfect parent were my children.
I once vowed that my son would never play with toy weapons. That didn't seem to stop him from turning just about everything into a gun. One day my son made a gun out of a banana and shot the cat. He was deeply disappointed when the cat didn't stop what it was doing, clutch its chest, and fall down on the floor.
And how was I supposed to know, when I vowed to never lie to my children, that my 5-year-old daughter would begin asking me questions about the reproductive process long before I was ready to tell her?
I finally compromised by discussing a few key facts, using the animal kingdom as an example. I thought I handled the subject honestly and tactfully—until she began to walk up to everyone who came to our home and ask, "Do you have a uterus?" If they unwittingly answered yes, she'd demand to know what size it was, where it came from, and if she could take a look at it.
Now, when my children and I go out in public, I want to stop people and let them know I am really a good parent. I want to tell them that my son is eating a Popsicle for breakfast because he is going through a phase where he will only eat blue food, and I'm running out of options. He has a dirty dishtowel tucked into the back of his shirt because he thinks it's a cape and today he wants to be Batman. I want to explain that my daughter is wearing her bathing suit with a pair of cowboy boots because she thinks the leather tassels go great with the pink netting on her skirt.
When I yell things like "Because I'm the Mommy and I said so!" I want people to know that what I really mean is "I can understand your desire, but it is my duty as a concerned mother to constantly look out for your best interest."
Sometimes I wonder how it would feel to appear in public with two orderly, quiet children with immaculate faces and clean clothes. I could shop without anyone repeating "Can I have a big pretzel now, Mommy?" every three seconds like some sort of hypnotic mantra. Maybe I could even stop to look at something—or enter a store, get only what I actually need, then leave! But I have a feeling my life wouldn't be nearly as exciting.
Now, when I see a mother whose child is happily meandering behind her, eating a Twinkie and wearing wrinkled dinosaur pajamas and a pair of swim fins, I no longer think she's an unfit parent. I know she's just doing the best she can.
Debbie Farmer is a teacher and writer. She and her family live in California.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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Summer 2002, Vol. 14, No. 3, Page 38