Perfectly Reasonable

Dr. Ray Guarendi on how to reconcile parents’ high expectations with kids’ low(er) ones.

When I discipline or limit my 16-year-old daughter, she accuses me of expecting her to be perfect. How can I know my expectations are reasonable?

Well, do you expect her to be perfect? I would hope so. Any expectations for responsible and moral conduct are attached to some ideal to strive for. Disciplining your daughter for disrespect implies that you expect respect — all the time, not just some of the time. Grounding her for abusing curfew indicates that you have curfew rules in place for every night, not just for Tuesdays and the second Thursday following a full moon.

Most likely, your daughter is not actually accusing you of demanding perfection. She could just be complaining about rules she doesn’t like. She may be calling your expectations “perfect” when she really means “too high, in my opinion.” For instance, if you punish her for mistreating a sibling, she views this as not allowing her to make a mistake or to be human. If you were being reasonable, you’d understand that even the best of people do bad things. You’d give her some slack.

Indeed, you are being reasonable, perfectly so. To expect perfect behavior is not to expect someone to be perfect. It is to establish a standard to teach by. I want my kids’ rooms orderly. Are they? What do you think? Even as I enforce my room rules, I am aware that the rooms will never be kept to my liking, much less perfectly so. This does not mean I don’t hold to some kind of ideal. Further, my standard may in fact not be all that high, but, compared to my kids’ standards, it looks like it’s in the stratosphere.

This brings me to a second point. If your daughter’s idea of what constitutes good teenage conduct is less ambitious than yours (I’ll bet it is), then she’s accusing you of being a perfectionist — not because you are, but because you expect more of her than she does, which, in her opinion, means that your standards are not just higher than hers, they are higher than most anybody’s. Teens have a proclivity for seeing their way as the only reasonable way.

Then, too, when was the last time your daughter thought you eminently fair for disciplining her? Yesterday? Last year? When she was 3? It is a truth of life that kids — and more than a few adults — can rationalize their behavior enough to excuse it from any judgment or consequences. If another person, especially one in authority, doesn’t quite agree with their thinking, he is being intolerant of fallible human nature.

Can you use my arguments on your daughter? Are you kidding? What are you, a perfectionist? You can use them on yourself, though, to feel less guilty and vulnerable to your daughter’s accusations.

When will your daughter come to appreciate your so-called perfectionism? When she’s paying her own bills? When she has teenagers? When she’s perfect?

There is an irony in all this. Because of your discipline, your daughter sees you as demanding perfection. What she doesn’t see is that it is this very discipline that is making her a better person.

And the better she gets, the more she’ll come to see how far we all are from perfection.

The doctor is always in