The Perfect Child

She died recently—my namesake that is—Shirley Temple Black. In the 30’s and 40’s she became America’s sweetheart and in later years was an ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. She was a bright, talented, precocious child. I certainly cannot fault my mother for naming me after such an outstanding personality.

For me, the difficulty came into play from the idea that she was the “perfect” little girl. In later years, my parents confessed to me that they wanted to have a perfect child. They indicated that they had criticized their friends’ children so often that the only child they planned to have had to be one that was beyond reproach.

Parents’ expectations of perfection, even unspoken ones, can put excessive pressure on a child—pressure that converts at the deepest level to never feeling good enough and fear of failure. Couple that with a good dose of criticism and you have a fearful child who develops self-critical beliefs. He or she strives to please to avoid criticism and can lose that important sense of their true self somewhere along the way. This child can become their own worst enemy as they grow into adulthood.

As I continue wearing my therapist’s hat, I say to parents to gently encourage your child to be the best they can be. Give them the gift of themselves by allowing them the freedom to explore who they are even if that is not the journey you would have chosen for them. Of course, be there for support and guidance, but allow them to make their own age-appropriate decisions whenever possible. Try not to live out your own fears or life dreams through them, nor push your own desires onto them. It is their life, and they are a gift in yours.

Despite these parental expectations and restrictions, I had a reasonably happy childhood. As an “only” child, I received much parental love and attention along with nice gifts on special occasions. It was perhaps more joyful and certainly more “normal” than was Shirley Temple’s. We all know now more about the unfortunate effects that childhood stardom often introduces by interfering with normal developmental stages. I remember a story my mother told me about Shirley’s mother fussing with her hair and not allowing her to do certain things when she was in public. It sounds like she had her own “perfect” image to uphold, at least while she was in the public eye.

Unlike Shirley, I grew up as a quiet, shy child who was often afraid that I would do or say something wrong. I didn’t turn out so badly, but sometimes wonder now in my September years if I could have accomplished so much more in life if I had not grown up feeling limited by parental desires and expectations.

I do, nonetheless, believe that everything happens for a reason. I have experienced many wonderful times and relationships in my life and have grown spiritually as a result of the more difficult ones. I have gradually learned to control my own perfectionism and use it more often to my advantage, rather my detriment. Had I been raised differently, all this might not be the case, nor would I be here writing this blog and meeting all the friendly, supportive people I have encountered on my writing journey. Actually, just between us—this is the life I’ve grown accustomed to… so at this point, I really can’t say I would have changed a thing.