My Facebook feed abounds with articles and book reviews about parenting. Apparently, we are overvaluing, overscheduling, and overprotecting our children. The underlying message in all of these stories is this: We are doing it wrong. And if we are doing it wrong, then there must be some way to do it right. Some fine-tuned adjustment of the dial could help me tune in to just the right frequency, with an implied promise of happy, healthy, well-adjusted children.
A deeper consideration of the issue reveals that the goal of “perfect” parenting is of course illusory. Consider the ironic – and instructive – news that all of our efforts to protect our kids from food allergies may have in fact contributed to the alarming epidemic. Somehow, all of this trying so hard to get it right brings about the very thing we were trying to avoid, at least in some instances. Sometimes we get things wrong by trying so hard to do them right.
Wholeness, Not Perfection
According to Jung, the goal of our life’s journey should be wholeness, not perfection. He famously said that the “right way to wholeness is made up of fateful detours and wrong turnings.” In other words, sometimes we get things right by doing them wrong.
The wisdom of fairy tales supports Jung’s observations. In many tales, it is the witch, the giant, or the evil sorcerer who paradoxically bring about the happy development of the hero in their apparent efforts to thwart him. At the end of the Hungarian tale The Boy Who Could Keep a Secret, a young man wronged as a child by his cruel mother acknowledges his gratitude to her. “If you had not beaten me nothing would have happened that has happened, and I should not now be King of Hungary.” If she hadn’t beaten him, he never would have set out on his hero’s journey.
In the end, we don’t know what is “right.” What helps one child may be exactly wrong for another. Just as in the fairy tale, sometimes things have paradoxical effects. I have worked with people in therapy whose parents did everything wrong — abuse, addiction, poverty, etc. And yet in spite of all this — or because of it? — some people survive and even excel with such backgrounds. Others grow up with loving parents and every advantage, and struggle.
There is no formula for being a good parent. All we can do is parent as consciously as possible, while knowing that our “mistakes” may have surprising outcomes in the end.
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