Everyone wants to be a good parent, to give their children the best education, the best upbringing and all the support they need to grow and mature into productive and confident adults. That’s a lot of pressure for mom and dad, and not all of it comes from within. Who hasn’t worried about what the neighbors think of your chaotic attempt to get everyone out the door in the morning with homework and lunch in tow, or how teachers and other parents might judge the brands of clothing or food you buy?
Being good parents, it seems, is all about balancing these pressures and knowing which ones are worth sweating about. New research finds that having high self-imposed standards can actually be beneficial, while caring what other playground parents think about the stroller you push or your decision to not buy organic milk may in fact undermine your confidence and up your stress levels.
Researchers at Ohio State University looked at a large study of about 200 couples who became first-time parents between 2008 and 2010, zooming in on the factors that affected who adjusted well and who didn’t to their new family life. They scrutinized the concept of parenting perfectionism, defined as having excessively high standards and interpreting outcomes as all-or-nothing success or failure. Parenting perfectionists would largely experience child-rearing as a black-or-white endeavor: they’d perceive that they’re either really good or really bad at it.
Three months before their baby was born, the couples filled out questionnaires that helped determine whether they subscribed more to societal-oriented parental perfectionism — in which case they believed that society expected them to be the perfect parents and worried about what others thought about how they raised their child — or self-oriented parental perfectionism, which meant they had really high internal standards but weren’t as concerned about how others sized them up.
Researchers found that having a high degree of societal-oriented parental perfectionism didn’t bode well for adjustment to parenthood. Mothers who had high societal-oriented parental perfectionism before giving birth and at three months after birth had lower parenting “self-efficacy” — or confidence in their ability to handle the day-to-day demands of parenting. Dads who scored high in this trait demonstrated greater levels of stress, according to the research, which was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
“When parents are really worried about what others think about their parenting, this is an indication that they’re more likely to interpret things that happen to them and their child as failures,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, study co-author and an associate professor in human development and family science at Ohio State. “When parents have less confidence and more stress, their parenting quality suffers.”
In perfectionism research, scholars agree that any kind of societal-oriented perfectionism is probably bad while internal high standards are good. This particular study didn’t track parents past three months post-partum, raising the possibility that having very high standards early on could set people up for adjustment problems down the road. As Schoppe-Sullivan points out, “Parenting is a long journey.”
Yet while both moms and dads seemed to benefit from maintaining high personal standards for parental perfectionism, there were still gender differences that reflect lingering societal norms that place the greater burden of parenting on mothers. Fathers, for example, display more confidence, self-efficacy, less stress and greater satisfaction in their role as dads while mothers were more satisfied in their role as mothers, but didn’t enjoy greater confidence or less stress.
“Having high self-standards and being happy in your role go together,” says Schoppe-Sullivan. “It’s easier for fathers to meet their own standards because society still sets the bar lower for fathers. Expectations for dads have evolved, but we still don’t expect the same things from them that we expect from mothers.” That may take some more time.