Tis the season… to be perfect?

Perfect Christmas treeIt’s that time of year again. The pressure to be perfect is never felt more acutely than at Christmas-time, when it seeps insidiously from the cover of every magazine and newspaper from November through to January, as we are all urged to make this year the ‘best ever’.

Of course, it is not just Christmas when mums (and often dads too), feel the pressure to be perfect. Other triggers for parenting perfection include the annual holiday (which often coincides with the Christmas break of course) and special occasions like birthdays, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and Christenings.

Let’s face it, when it comes to those special times in our kids’ lives, we want them to be magical. We want everything to go right, all our carefully laid plans to come to fruition and nothing to cast any shadow of discontent on the glowing faces of our appreciative and delighted offspring. We want to create memories that our children will treasure, a bank of happy days to carry them through, a treasure trove of fairy dust to bring sparkle to their childhoods. In short, we want these occasions to be perfect.

Sadly, the reality never quite lives up to the fantasy fashioned from a thousand magazine features. Something always goes wrong – it is inevitable. The turkey is dry, the sprouts rock hard, the gifts are unappreciated, the kids are squabbling, the guests are late, someone was sick, the gorgeous outfit got muddy, the baby was up all night…the possibilities for imperfection are endless. Yet such imperfections should not bring us to our knees; we should be able to absorb the odd setback without feeling that we have let our kids down. But, the pressure to be perfect is so strong, that any departure from perfection can hit us far too hard. This could be why Christmas is thought to be the sixth most stressful life event (up there with moving house, divorce and changing jobs).

The media must take some of the responsibility for creating over-inflated expectations of shiny, pristine, glossy perfection at this time of year. Magazines never urge us to have a ‘nice’ Christmas; it’s always got to be ‘perfect’. Christmas, like other special occasions in our lives, is almost a competition to prove our worth as mums (or dads) as we try to ensure we have the nicest decorations, the best home-cooked food and the shiniest gifts. This is our chance to show off our super organisational skills, our inner Mary Berry and our exceptionally good taste. Anything less than perfection reflects on our parenting skills – and risks that ultimate in parenting failures; letting the kids down.

At these milestone occasions in our lives, we live in fear of disappointing the children. The shops know this and capitalise on it; this is why most of the mini movies they create these days to get us to part with our cash, are designed to tap into our deep-seated need to make our kids happy.

kids having fun on Christmas marketBut actually, I think the media have got it wrong. Kids don’t need perfection to be happy. They have quite simple needs really; nice food (by which I mean junk food, takeaways or even a box of Cadbury Heroes), a few presents from their list and then to be left alone to play/slump in front of the telly/be engrossed by their devices. They don’t need succulent turkey, fluffy spuds or tasteful décor to be happy.

In fact, it is often the imperfections that they love the most – and will remember. When things go wrong or don’t turn out as expected, is often the time when kids have the most fun of all; the burnt food that has to be replaced by frozen pizza, the guests who won’t leave but who provide a source of mirth for months afterwards, the age inappropriate gift from Aunty Jane, the frantic search for forgotten potatoes amongst the ethnic shops that are open on Christmas Day, the oven malfunction which meant cheese sandwiches and crisps for dinner….all these imperfections will make their day, not break it.

So the pressure to be perfect is often unnecessary and ends up making us stressed, anxious and ratty. We can’t enjoy the special times if we’re too worried about getting everything right. And, the kids will enjoy it less too, if Mum and Dad are snappy, irritable and tense. Kids pick up on the emotions of their parents; if Mum and Dad are relaxed and happy, that’s all they need (barring this year’s must-have present, of course).

So, whether it’s Christmas, that special birthday or coming of age ceremony, free yourself from the pressure to be perfect. No one and nothing is perfect, so managing expectation early on will result in a far better time for all during the big day.

Dr Sandi Mann is the director of The MindTraining Clinic and specialises in the treatment of phobias, panic attacks and anxiety conditions. She is also author of ‘Surviving The Terrible Teens’ and ‘Dealing With Difficult Eaters’, both published by Crimson. www.mindtrainingclinic.co.uk

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