“Superior Parenting?” That’s Crazy Talk. Children Need Only 3 Things.

Years ago, I was standing in the back yard of my uncle’s house talking to my cousin. “I feel like I messed up my kids,” I said.

“Oh, Ricky, Don’t you know? We all mess up our kids. It’s all set up that way.”

I was an educator, who by then had known about a thousand parents, and was experienced enough to know that she was right. However for me, the Dad, I needed to be reminded that there is no way to do the job of parenting “right.”

Since then I have seen about three thousand more parents in all situations, and I still know that she was right. Three of my four children have children, and I watch with admiration how they raise my five grandchildren. I also watch the “mistakes” they are making, and I am smart enough to keep my mouth shut. Anyway, just look at them. They are terrific. My cousin was right.

So when Amy Chua came out in the Wall Street Journal ten days ago claiming that Chinese mothers are “Superior,” I had to say to myself that this was some sort of journalistic device. No mother I have ever known would claim that their parenting style is superior. Come to think of it, I haven’t even met many mothers who seem to think that their parenting style is good enough. Most I have known are pretty self-critical as they frantically “multi-task” to keep on top of situation after situation. “Superior?” That’s crazy talk.

But it is obvious that the journalistic device worked. Mothers who have been told they are parenting wrongly are still comforting or arguing with each other, and psychologists, parenting experts and educators are weighing in.

I wasn’t going to speak up, but at four this morning, I realized that I had a very important piece of wisdom: Give it up; just be a Good-Enough-Mom. I have written a book about parenting. I have a list of parenting tips A-to-Z, and yet that’s my advice: Be a Good-Enough-Mom.

If you stop trying to be a perfect parent, you will be a great one. Just remember that kids really only need three things:

(1) our undying love,

(2) respected as unique decision makers in their own right, and

(3) accurate feedback about the requirements of the environment in which they are trying to make these decisions.

1)    “Undying love.” This isn’t something a parent has to try to do. It is a natural urge. Unconditional love is not a feeling, but a commitment. Love is not an e-motion but a motive, a drive. It is not something we withhold when the other person isn’t the way we want them to be; it is the discipline of being the way WE want to be. It looks like valuing them for who they are, not what they do. Valuing them for their very existence. No matter what.

2)    “Decision makers.” From the get-go kids are decision makers. They are driven to make something of themselves. Notice them and we notice that they seem to have this little inner engine. I call it their genius. Believe in and support this genius, and we are in business.

3)    “Accurate Feedback.” Notice and love their genius, plus one more thing: Be a trusted source of data on how they are doing. Don’t “soften” the feedback. Walking on eggshells will make them think we think they are made of eggshells. They are not. They are made of flubber. Give them feedback that is hearable, seeable and doable. …and when we get tired, say, “I’m tired.” That is important data, too.

That’s it. Love them as decision makers and be strong in giving them accurate feedback on their efforts. Keep this focus, and keep learning, and we will be great parents, just by being our sorry, imperfect selves.

Trusting their genius (and our own) is the key to making sure that our kids’ lives are only moderately messed up and that we have great, long-lasting relationships with them however messed up we are.

Getting there by being superior? I am sure that’s Amy Chua sense of humor.


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27 thoughts on ““Superior Parenting?” That’s Crazy Talk. Children Need Only 3 Things.

  1. I enjoy reading all of your articles, and thoroughly enjoyed reading your book as well. This is well said! No one is perfect and or superior. We all try to be the best we can be as parents, and it’s OK to falter here and there. We get up and try again in the next moment.

  2. “Valuing them for their very existence.” Yes! I fully agree; I love this statement.

    Last night my husband was talking to our eldest son (12) about his siblings (4 and 2). My husband said, “I don’t think my role is to tell the younger kids what to do all day long. No! Stop! Quit it! That’s wrong! I think my role as a father is to be here while they explore, ask questions, get into things, play, etc. I’m here to make sure no one gets hurts and that they have a safe place to be who they are.”

    I really liked that he said such a thing. How blessed am I to be married to a guy like that, right?

    No, our kids don’t have piano pieces memorized (like the Chinese children) and they usually have dirt on their faces, paint on their clothing and peanut butter in their hair. But they’re happy. In fact, as I type this my kids are downstairs with the sitter listening to music. They are dancing and giggling. The song stopped and my daughter said, “That was amazing.” LOL. Sometimes they laugh so hard they fall down. Those are my favorite days.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can’t even tell you how much I needed this article today. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I can wake up tomorrow and just be a mom who loves her kids, and work really hard on the last two items. *thank you*

  4. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. You are absolutely correct, no one is perfect, much less superior. A mom who is patient, kind and loving is more than enough…but of course us moms will never feel like we do enough!:)

    Thanks again:)

  5. One more thing: children who come from intact families where the parents love and respect each other have a big advantage. Parents can make lots of mistakes when they have created a happy home for their children. Absent that happy home, the margin for mistakes is much smaller.

  6. As an educator, I used to think I knew everything about motherhood. I thought I was a perfect mother… until I had my first child. It took me long time to realize how wrong I was and I thank my boys for teaching me the way to humility and true love. A few days ago, I felt the urge to write a post confessing my ignorance and stating: I´m as simple and common as a mother can be. This was hard for an obsessive perfectionist like me. I´ve been repeating this affirmation to my self for three or four days now. Your words reassure this truth. Yes! I´m a Good-Enough-Mohter. Thank you!

  7. love being “good enough” – sometimes it is all i am capable of. it’s kind of funny that “good enough” can open the door to occasional moments of “outstanding” while “superior” can often lead to self-deception and isolation. thanks so much rick!!

  8. Ruth Marcus, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, has a column today that highlights the Chua-Mogel positions and Ruth comes down somewhere in between, trying to be a moderate, without going to either “extreme” of too much pressure or not enough pressure on children to perform – whether in academics (read grades) sports (making the team) or socially (the right friends). I think the wise parent knows when to push, how much to push and when to back off and not push at all but create the time and space for children to explore their own preferences, their own creative energies and discover their own passions. Parents can provide opportunities, give guidance, suggestions, offer choices and trumping it all embrace their children for who they are at that particular moment in time and not hold up expectations that are either unreasonable or unrealistic. Parenting is at best a sum game and anxious parents help create anxious kids. There’s already more than enough of that dis-ease to go around. What I see both parents and kids needing today is more time off the grid and off the grind. Unplug and take a raft trip, a hiking trip, or take part in some other wilderness experience that brings relationships into focus and freshness. It doesn’t have to be the extreme of the mom who unplugged her kids of any tech stuff for 6 months but time off and away is a great antidote to being over-scheduled, over-involved and over the top. Take a deep breath, a step back and really assess where you are and where you want to go with your kids. It’s a great trip and I wish you well.

  9. Love your wisdom and insight, Rick. I wish YOUR message would go viral. I am deeply saddened by the possible long term effects of the Chua article – it is inexcusable to me. Please read this article by erin Khue Ninh, “Amy Chua’s Recipe for Disaster and the Externalized Cost of Book Sales.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erin-khue-ninh/amy-chuas-recipe-for-disa_b_810607.html?ref=tw.
    Shara, I absolutely love your stories about your interactions with your kids!

  10. I LOVE this article. Fantastic! You said a mouthful when you said “If you stop trying to be a perfect parent, you will be a great one.” You really gave me a boost because I do always think that no matter how much I try, that they need more than what I am! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  11. I’d venture that most of the parents that comment on your blog and indeed most of the parents that I know are doing much better than “good enough.” Parents can be human, make mistakes; even “have issues,” and still be very good parents. the very fact that many parents seem to be tuned in and listening to creative ways to get children engaged, allow them to influence the direction of their development, and gain confidence while maintaining sensitivity is testimony to there being a lot of excellent parenting occurring out there.

  12. Great Rick! Heard Amy on NPR today and could not help but enjoy her ability to hold complexity and express both commitment and growth through reevaluation. She spoke a lot about the Arc of the book that was missing from the WSJ.

    I think the whole thing is meant to be- which is to say that this dialogue is overdue, important and definitely multifaceted. Multi-culturalism begins with curiosity. I for one am looking forward to reading this “tell all.” I’ve already discussed the brew ha with students of Asian and other decent.

  13. Love it! We MUST learn to embrace our imperfections as the uniquely imperfect parents we are. We show up every day and that alone is admirable. Raising kids in todays world is NOT an easy task. It not only takes a village, it takes courage to do the best you can in each moment and accept your strengths and weaknesses as valuable life lessons. If we can model imperfect lives for our children we give our children license to not strive for unrealistic goals. Be YOUR best self and that is just perfect!

    annmarie chereso
    perfectly imperfect life coach

  14. good parents should also try to give constructive feedback instead of blames & critiques. Treat your kids as equals, as friends, and respect them the way you respect other adults. Many parents love criticizing their kids rather than giving them feedback, yet critiques don’t help anything but create resentment.

  15. I completely agree. Parenting is not one of the simple things that can be measured in terms of superiority. No way.
    And that’s a great little list to remember.

  16. Thank you, friends (and new friends), for so many thoughtful comments. Bill is right. It is a conversation this country has been needing. As Brene Brown says in her TEDtalk (http://bit.ly/g510KN), Americans seem to be having an increasingly hard time being their vulnerable, imperfect selves. We strive for excellence, as in “be the best you can be,” thus preempting the greatness that comes from allowing ourselves to be that unique, great character we are supposed to become.

    To be the parents (and the people) we should be, we have to change a deep seated mindset, and I have learned that means we have to change our language. Here is where we need to remember that great quotation from The Little Prince: “Words are the source of misunderstandings.”

    LOL. Really good new word! We all need to do it more often. Doing it with our kids unlocks all sorts of stalemates and liberates kids (and us) to listen to our genius.
    Genius is not something a few of us are but something each of us has.
    SO: Our genius calls us to take on challenges. Facing those challenges, we acquire the disciplines to pursue our work in the world. In doing so we build our character and become the authorities we are meant to become. That’s how it works when we pursue what we love. When we are in this process (which feels simply like being ourselves) we are being great.
    Perfect? Years ago I started making the distinction (to students, parents and teachers) that perfection is antithetical to excellence. Then I realized that striving for excellence IS the problem and started giving the speech that we should strive toward greatness, which comes from being the character we were meant to be, and listening to our genius. To be great we have to be a little oblivious of excellence.
    Beauty:? Then I discovered wabi-sabi: the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection, asymmetry, and profundity in nature and accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death as essential to life.
    Blame? The problem with blame is that it compromises decision making. By focusing on the past instead of the future, blame focuses people on what they should have done rather than on the next decision they will make. It is demotivating, and completely counter-productive in that it reduces decision making and creative thinking.
    Critique and criticism are what we humans need to give each other in order to make good decisions. Decision making is a perpetual exercise in making mistakes. In our culture “I love you just the way you are,” has gotten confused with “Everything you do is okay.” So much of what I do, even at the age of 65, like trying to express myself in writing, is not actually what I would want it to be. I need feedback, I need criticism, I need critiques. If you love me anyway, and are just trying to help me out, I can receive the information more clearly and make better decisions. (Just like “Gordon the Guided Missile.”)

  17. If we are “superior” or “perfect” parents, what kind of standard does that set for our children? How many stories, movies, books are there about people who spend their whole lives trying to live up to their parents’ perfection? Better to model the sweet reality of life, that no one is perfect and we all must learn to accept and forgive (and learn from!) our mistakes.
    And I so agree with Gary about trying to get into the “wild” as a family and disengage from technology. That takes effort for sure, but I believe that kids today need to learn those personal connections. It is the essence of our humanity.

  18. Great article! Though I would probably add food to your list of things children need. My daughter seems to need food.

  19. I really enjoyed this. Especially after that stir the “Chinese Mothers” article created. Your points resonate with what I try to do, but you laid it out so well. Thanks!

  20. …and thank you Mr. Anonymous for reminding us that “Moms” might make “Dads” feel left out…and that there are “Dads” who are proud that their kids call them “Mom.” This is all about Parenting, and there are all kinds with all sorts of sexual orientations. Thank you for the correction.

  21. Thanks, Rick…for saying what some many need to hear. Thanks for reminding ALL of us. You so eloquently communicate what I have always known to be true. We don’t have to be real perfect, we just have to be perfectly real. Our kids NEED real!
    REAL love.
    REAL guidance.
    REAL information.
    Which all parlays into REAL opportunities to make mistakes, mess up and move onward and upward. Who could ask for more?


  22. Rick, thanks for writing about this topic. When I was growing up with two highly intellectual parents who were hard-wired for intense academic achievement, I was more like Eeyore, relatively happy to lay low and be with my friends. I am grateful that my parents were the farthest thing from “Tiger Parents.” Their goal for me and for my brother: to be happy, self-directed adults. To this day, there are times when I can tell my parents wonder why I am not more fired up about local issues, why I haven’t read the most recent issue of the Economist, or why I still favor popular music and t.v. But I know that the only way I could have truly disappointed my parents would have been if were not leading a happy and fulfilled life — which I am. I lead a very rich life, with three children, a terrific husband, a fulfilling career, great business partners, colleagues from schools all over the country and lifelong friendships.

    I don’t remember what school leader said this at a recent SFLC seminar — might have been Peter Branch — “I am in the business of educating successful 30-year olds.” And so am I. My hope for my children is that when they are 30 (and beyond) they are living a life that is fulfilling to them. I wish that for every SFLC fellow and for all of the children I have taught over the years.

    Hope all is well in Decatur.

    Your friend,


  23. Thanks for the great comment, Carla. Yes, I think it was Peter Branch. Hope you participate in the continuation of this talk in today’s post.

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