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Embracing the Messiness of Parenthood

Paul Asay, an award-winning journalist who currently serves as senior associate editor at Plugged In, discusses his new book, When Parenting Isn’t Perfect, which he co-wrote with Focus on the Family president Jim Daly, to encourage parents to embrace the messiness of parenthood and to show grace to children.

Paul Asay discusses parenthood

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Embracing the Messiness of Parenthood

INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today, we will be taking a realistic and hopeful look at parenting, and contrast it with the seemingly elusive and potentially destructive quest many parents find ourselves on to attain the status of the “perfect parent.”

Our guest is Paul Asay, an award-winning journalist who currently serves as senior associate editor at Plugged In, a movie review ministry. As I expect many of you do, I rely heavily on Plugged In Online for accurate, timely and relevant reviews of movies, TV programs, music and other forms of entertainment. Paul has been published by The Washington Post, Time magazine, and Christianity Today, just to name a few. And we’re excited to talk with him about his new book, When Parenting Isn’t Perfect, which he co-wrote with Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, to really encourage parents to embrace the messiness of parenthood, and to show grace to children within that family structure.

So, Paul Asay, I want to welcome you to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.

PAUL ASAY: John, thank you so much for having me. I am thrilled to be here.

JOHN RUSTIN: Paul, early in the book, you and Jim Daly write that, “Our desire to be perfect and to honor God through perfection is actually destroying us.” We know that Scripture tells us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, so where is this balance that we may struggle with as parents? And how can this pursuit of being the perfect parent actually be destructive to ourselves and our families?

PAUL ASAY: It’s a really tricky question, isn’t it? As a parent myself, it’s something that I have struggled with off and on throughout my entire life—I think that all of us do in a way. You’re absolutely right! God wants us to strive for that perfection, but I think sometimes—and I think that Jim, one of the things that he stresses is that— while it’s good to try to reach for that lofty standard, that perfection that God wants us to reach for, sometimes we go overboard. Instead of striving for perfection, we accept nothing less. And we accept nothing less from ourselves and from our spouses and from our kids. And when we sort of demand that perfection, as opposed to shooting for that perfection, all of a sudden, we get into a position where we blame, we feel terrible about ourselves, we kick ourselves for doing things that we should have done better, and we blame our kids for not living up to our sky-high expectations of them. That can put a family in a really tricky position, where all of a sudden, instead of being a place of love and security, it becomes a very insecure place, where people just don’t quite know where they stand and they just don’t have the ability to really love each other like I think God wants us to.

JOHN RUSTIN: Paul, do you think there is a connection between achievement-focused parenting and the delay that we often see today with young people as far as getting married, and even among some young people really desiring to live out an active life of faith?

PAUL ASAY: I think there’s absolutely a connection. I think that in Christian families especially—and I think that Jim has seen this throughout his career, he’s spoken so many Christian families, he’s spoken to so many Christian experts—and I think that one thing that he has seen over and over again, it’s just this desire for perfectionism. We can be really critical of our kids and I think that when we’re critical of our kids like that, then it leads to a couple of different things. Kids can become much more insecure. They don’t feel like they have the wherewithal and the backing to take chances, to reach out and strive, to really be the people that God wants them to be. […] It’s always good to be prudent but I think that kids can sometimes be overly cautious and so that leads to sort of a failure to stretch themselves and to reach out and try new things. And so they shrink into needing just security to just get by. And when kids grow up in a very, very critical home, which sometimes this sense of perfectionism can lead to, where you feel like you’re being critiqued all the time, I think that leaves a bad taste in kids’ mouths. They have hard believing all their lives that God loves them, that Christianity is a place of love and acceptance, and that there’s this sense of peace and comfort that should come with Christianity. But when they see that in their own lives, when they see that in their—sometimes within their own Christian homes—they don’t necessarily feel that love. They feel pressure, they feel blame. So because of that, because of the disconnect between what Christianity should be and what sometimes they’ve seen in their own homes, it can make them want to go the other way and find that love and acceptance other places. So, they search for that love and acceptance from their friends, from peer groups that might not be very healthy. They try to escape from it in other ways and it can become a really damaging thing, I think.

JOHN RUSTIN: I know the book, When Parenting Isn’t Perfect, is full of really beautiful images and practical comparisons. What is one of your favorite images in the book? And why do you think using those images is so powerful in conveying the message that you and Jim sought to convey with When Parenting Isn’t Perfect?

PAUL ASAY: One of my very favorite images that Jim really brought…. When we were talking, the thing that struck me I think the most—both in this book and I think he also mentioned in a previous book that we wrote called, The Good Dad—was this concept of the ‘tether of love.’ And for me, when Jim mentioned that, that is something I have really carried over in my relationships with my own kids. And essentially what it is, he describes love as being like a tetherball. And we’re the pull as parents and our kids are the ball. And sometimes during their lives, they come closer to us, sometimes they’re father away, but as long as that tether is strong, as long as the string between the pole and the ball is strong, we’ll continue to have relationship, we’ll continue to love one another. When that tether frays or breaks, then that’s when real trouble can truly take root. And that’s something as a parent of older kids—my kids are 26 and 23, making their own decisions, they’re out of the home—that’s something, that image comes to mind again and again for me personally. I think that you want to preserve that tether of love, to preserve that sense of love and acceptance and being able to be a part of your kids’ lives. It’s just so important even when they’re adults. And to preserve that relationship, to preserve that tether, is just so critical I think. And so that’s the image that sticks with me the most.

JOHN RUSTIN: I know that the game of tetherball, you can’t get the real effect unless that rope or that tether that’s attached one end to a pole and one end to the ball, unless it has the freedom and the ability to go to its full extent. You hit the ball and it wraps around the pole and then goes around the other way. But if that tether is too short or if you’re not experiencing the full extent of that, you’re really not experiencing true life. I know that oftentimes, I think of that concept also as a parent, that oftentimes we sort of take a top-down approach where parents feel like they have to be in control, kind of rule over their kids and dictate to children what they do and don’t do. But I know you talk about how children actually make us better adults and so going through those experiences of parenting and of life as a family, as parents and children, it really can help make us better, both personally but also as parents.

PAUL ASAY: I think that’s absolutely true. And I love your take on the tetherball image, by the way. I think that’s so powerful because I think again, it sort of gets back to this feeling of perfectionism that we try to instill. And I think that sometimes as parents, we try to, as you say, we don’t necessary allow our children the freedom they need to become their own people because we’re so concerned with the decisions they make, we tend to start making them for our kids. And that can be troubling. And I think again as the parent of adult children, it can be hard to understand that your kids—your whole job is to get them to start being able to make decisions on their own. You have to let go and that even means when they make decisions that you might not necessarily agree with. That sort of dovetails into what you were talking about, with how your kids make you a better person and a better parent. And I think there’s so much truth to that. I think that children have a way of humbling us, of showing us our own weaknesses if we’re willing to look at them. I think they really bring us to a level of humility where we have to lean on God sometimes with raising our kids, because let’s face it, raising kids is tough, it is just tough to do. And so to understand that we don’t necessarily have all the answers. Sometimes when it’s appropriate, even admitting to our kids that we don’t have all the answers, is an important thing to do. I think it allows us to reach a point of humility and to really understand that this is tough stuff.

JOHN RUSTIN: Paul, what are some practical ways that parents can release themselves from a perfectionist approach and attitude, and really show forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love in their families?

PAUL ASAY: There are a few basic guidelines, I think, parents probably should follow. Jim really feels like these are important cornerstones for a healthy family. A big one is just listening to your kids. As parents, we tend to do a lot of talking, and well we should. We’ve got to tell kids rules, we have to give them the benefit of our wisdom, all that kind of stuff. But I think oftentimes, children really need to feel like they’re listened to. I think we need to enter their world as much as we can, to interact with them, to go to tea parties with your daughter, or play catch with your daughter, or cook, or whatever—whatever they’re really into. Try to enter those worlds as best you can so you can become a part of it. A good sense of humor never goes awry. I think one of the things that Jim has felt has served him well is he has a fantastic sense of humor and he brings that to the table when things get a little bit tense around his house. That’s really important. To not only have a good sense of humor about life and what’s going on around them, but having a good sense of humor about yourself and your own shortcomings. And have a good sense of humor about your kids and their own shortcomings; I think that really helps a lot. And just going into these relationships with love and forgiveness and really trying to understand, that as parents, we’re supposed to be the cornerstone for these kids’ lives. We’re supposed to be the safe harbor for them to come to when they really need help. We’re not supposed to be the rocks that they crash their ships on. We need to be there for them and we need to help them as much as we can. And I think when we understand that our roles are to help our kids while still giving them a gentle push, a nudge to reach their potential, to encourage them to do better than maybe they thought they could, then I think that’s a really important thing.

JOHN RUSTIN: Paul I know you’ve really wetted our appetite. Where can our listeners go to get a copy of When Parenting Isn’t Perfect? 

PAUL ASAY: You bet. Parenting Isn’t Perfect is available—obviously it’s on the Focus on the Family website. It’s available at Amazon and Christian booksellers everywhere. Really, it’s almost a cliché. It can be found at good bookstores everywhere. So just be looking out for it there.

JOHN RUSTIN: I know our listeners will want to take advantage of that. And with that, unfortunately Paul, we’re out of time. But I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters this week, and for this honest and hopeful book about parenting. I just want to encourage all the parents who are listening to this program to get a copy of this book, avail yourself of these great resources. As we all know, Focus on the Family is focused on building up families in a way that honors the Lord and that brings health and abundance to the lives of all those involved, so make sure you get this book, When Parenting isn’t Perfect.

And with that, Paul Asay, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.

PAUL ASAY: It was so much fun. Thank you so much for having me.

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