11/18/2011 09:03 EST | Updated 01/18/2012 05:12 EST

The Parent Trap: Why You'll Never Be the Perfect Mom or Dad


The online world was abuzz the other day with the news that once again, the satirical journalistic outlet known as The Onion had pulled yet another blanket over our proverbial eyes.

Citing what sounded like very credible statistics from The California Parenting Institute, the publication espoused details of the latest "scientific study" that revealed some sobering news. Parents everywhere were out of luck, apparently, because no matter what style of parenting one ascribed to, according to this study, it was ineffectual. That's to put it kindly. To be specific, the findings of this supposed survey revealed that overprotective parents, highly permissive parents and everyone in-between were wholly responsible for the delivery of "profoundly unhappy adults."

"Our research suggests that while overprotective parenting ultimately produces adults unprepared to contend with life's difficulties, highly permissive parenting leads to feelings of bitterness and isolation throughout adulthood," lead researcher Daniel Porter said. "And, interestingly, we found that anything between those two extremes is equally damaging, always resulting in an adult who suffers from some debilitating combination of unpreparedness and isolation. Despite great variance in parenting styles across populations, the end product is always the same: a profoundly flawed and joyless human being."

Now perhaps some pause and consideration for the contents of this "study" would inevitably reveal that this was indeed an attempt at satire regarding many parenting-related research projects that we have been inundated with in the past decade. That was the whole point, one can presume: to shed light on and perhaps make us question the purpose of the volume of research that so often seems to point the finger at us -- parents. Could this be why, as well, a nerve was invariably touched and why this announcement had so many of us already-stressed out parents up in arms?

Something that in any other instance would have quickly been spotted as a joke, went right past many folks who would otherwise not miss such obvious satire. The staff at the real California Parenting Institute were inundated with requests for further details on the study. Apparently the findings were disturbing to say the least.

While the humour behind this bogus survey isn't lost on us in hindsight, the collective reaction that occurred as a result of the announcement is of greater interest. A considerable number of people were clearly concerned that no matter what was done, their efforts at effective parenting were for naught. In essence, the study confirmed all of our worst nightmares as parents: that we've failed. And therein, ironically, is where the joke lies. Because if we didn't have a fatal flaw -- at least in our own minds -- about our abilities as parents, the findings wouldn't resonate to us so horribly.

The fact of the matter is, perfection -- particularly in the area of parenting -- is impossible. There is no simple guidebook that will ease the way through the difficult baby years on up to the trials of adolescence. Advice from friends, wise older family members and yes, strangers, can be taken at face value because at the end of the day, every child is different. As well, our behaviour and reactions to situations in which we have never found ourselves before cannot possibly be predicted. It's as simple as that. What is that expression about a road paved with good intentions?

This being the case, it's an exercise in futility to try to adopt a particular "style" of parenting based on advice, a study or otherwise. Like many things in life, parenting is something that you learn as you go, pure and simple. And whether you choose an overprotective "hover-parent" philosophy or a wholly permissive one on the other end of the spectrum, you can't win for losing. You will likely fail at some lessons along the way and guess what: that's okay. You'll pick yourself up and keep going, chalking it up to experience. You won't be perfect and your kids won't be the perfect children, but you'll both survive and come out of the experience stronger and wiser than when you went in. You don't need a study to tell you if you've succeeded or what you've done wrong. You'll just know.