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The myth of the perfect parent: Where it came from and how to let it go
Like overscheduled kids, modern parents are expected to fire on all cylinders at every moment, keeping the house clean, succeeding at work and raising happy children. But is this vision of family life sustainable? - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Modern parents need a new game plan, according to Jessica Lahey, a teacher, writer and mother.

Her new book, "The Gift of Failure," addresses the pressure parents put on themselves to do everything right, highlighting the unintended consequences this parental perfectionism holds for the whole family.

Today's moms and dads are highly competitive, steering their kids toward extracurriculars, closely monitoring academic achievements and moving at a break-neck pace to make the family's busy schedule work, Lahey said. "That becomes the way we measure our parenting, even if it's totally unfair to our kids," she added.

Achievement-oriented parenting is also unfair to the moms and dads who practice it, according to other experts on family life. And although it's difficult to forge a new path in an age of competitive parenting, it will be necessary in order to reclaim joy in the midst of stress, they said.

"It's really hard to pull away from the status quo," said Brigid Schulte, author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time" and mom to two teenagers. "(But) I have a limited time span, so I had to ask myself what I want it to be about. Clean closets? Making the bed everyday? Or something more meaningful."

The parenting evolution

The contemporary obsession with perfection can be linked to gradual changes to the parenting profession over the past hundred years, Lahey said.

Family life around the turn of the 20th century looked very different than it does today, because children were essential to keeping families afloat financially. Kids helped out around the farm or worked in factories.

However, by the 1920s, child labor laws had shifted the focus of childhood to education, including the education of parents. In "The Gift of Failure," Lahey notes the launch of Parents magazine in 1926 and the rising sense that parenting wasn't something people naturally knew how to do. Even Dr. Spock, who burst onto the scene in the late 1940s and advised parents to trust their instincts, didn't tame growing concerns.

By 1970, parent' (had become) a verb," said Jennifer Senior, a contributing editor at New York Magazine and author of "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood." Children began to be understood as "precious beings" to be loved and nurtured, and the pressure was on parents to do their job well.

"It was only when (children) lost their economic value that we decided it was our job to cultivate them and turn them into perfect little human beings," she said.

Coupled with the seemingly endless amounts of parenting advice available on the Internet, this pressure to mold our "precious beings" into successful adults is driving today's parents crazy, Lahey said.

"As we sift through the reams of parenting advice, we are left to strike our own balance between work and home, trust in our instincts, and trust in the experts," Lahey writes in her book. "Today, parenting is less oxytocin-soaked rosy glow, more adrenaline-fueled oncoming-headlight glare."

Modern parents also face tough criticism from others, according to a 2007 survey from Pew Research Center.

Fifty-six percent of the 2,000 respondents told Pew that mothers are doing a worse job today than mothers did 20 or 30 years ago, compared to 29 percent who said their performance is "about the same" as mothers in the past.

Respondents offered a similar assessment of modern dads. Pew found that 47 percent of people said fathers are doing a worse job today than in the past and 28 percent said they're about the same.

Pressure of perfection

Today's parents are often older and more educated than parents in the past, Lahey said, noting that they've also spent more time in the workforce before having children.

As a result, moms and dads have started parenting as if they want to ace a performance review, "because (they're) used to getting reviews from bosses and teachers," she added.

The modern drive to be a perfect parent is also fueled by economic instability and the collective sense, especially among middle or upper-middle class parents, that a good attitude and high GPA won't be enough to ensure a child's future financial security, Senior noted.

"Parents get nervous that their kids won't have the same toe hold in the upper-middle or middle-class that they did," she said. "They overcompensate, and spend every nickel they have on making them great violinists or mathematicians and hiring private tutors and batting coaches."

Although some parents might acknowledge that their concerns about the future are making their kids' lives more stressful, it's difficult to step back from the chaotic pace of modern family life, Senior noted.

Parents who consider scaling back their children's extracurriculars might think they're "unilaterally disarming," she said. "Then all the other kids have another leg up."

Letting go

Schulte has long struggled with trying to be everything for everybody. She spent years driving herself crazy trying to keep up with her children's busy lives, household chores and work assignments, all the while feeling like she had lost control over her own life.

"The social norm right now is to be a crazy helicopter parent," she said. "We feel kind of bad if we aren't one."

Since writing her book about finding a balance in life between work, love and play, Schulte has worked with her husband to cure her perfectionism. They take turns scheduling doctor's appointments for their two kids, share cleaning duties and abide by the rule, "The last one out of bed has to make it."

Schulte said reflecting on the chaos of her first decade of parenting helped her forge a path to a more calm and meaningful life.

"What made the biggest difference was taking the time to think about what was really most important to me," she said.

This level of self-reflection would serve many parents well, Senior said, noting that parents can let go of perfectionism if they start to prioritize other values.

"You have to ask yourself what you're doing (all the items on your calendar) for and ask what you want (life) to be about for yourself and your kids," she said. "Do you want your family's memories to be dominated by time in the car and time at the tutor's office? Or do you want to remember family dinner?"

Senior has tried to answer these questions as she strives to find a balance between spending time with her 7-year-old son and working on writing projects.

"I'm constantly working too much and reminding myself that unless I cut it out, that's what my kid will remember," she said.

Parents can also draw motivation for a change from their children, because kids absorb and reflect their parents' behavior as they age, Lahey said.

"There's something important and strong and powerful about modeling this behavior and helping our kids find their internal locus of approval rather than looking to us or to teachers or to Facebook," she said.

However, even moms and dads with a strong sense that something needs to change will need help from others to follow through with their new vision of family life, Schulte said.

"It may be an individual decision, but it requires a network of support," she noted.

Stressing less

Although she's a proponent of less competitive parenting, Senior won't judge parents who find it impossible to give up their never-ending to-do lists.

"Telling people to chill out just makes them more stressed," she said. "The last thing parents need is another lecture."

Instead, Senior encourages moms and dads to parent on their own terms, acknowledging that each family (and each kid) has different needs.

Lahey is more comfortable encouraging parents to put less pressure on themselves, because letting go of the desire to do it all, as well as getting her kids involved in the household chores, has made her life much less chaotic, especially as she prepares to depart on a book tour this month.

"If this had been happening two years ago, I would be panicked," she said. "But I'm going to leave town knowing that my kids can put on a fitted sheet and do laundry and knowing that it actually occurs to them to unload the dishwasher."