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It’s okay to be a “messy” parent

Let’s take a quick trip into your memory – think about some of the most fun you ever had growing up, especially with family. Hold those images in your mind for a moment. What are you recalling? If you are like many people, you are remembering silly, fun, spontaneous moments. What you are likely not remembering is the perfectly curated birthday party when you were seven, or the well-organized games you played at the party, much less what you and your friends ate and what kind of cake was involved. You may, however, remember throwing bits of that cake at your friends, who returned fire in an in-the-moment food fight that had your parents losing their minds. 

I like to refer to this as “messy” parenting. Parenting in the moment. It can be very easy to find yourself trapped in perfectionistic parenting, especially when we are comparing ourselves to others. Messy parenting cares little about the opinions of others. It is guided by spontaneity and the moments of real enjoyment; these moments are often what we use as touchstones when recalling our past and are hopefully largely informative in our own parenting.

I played hockey for a time when I was a kid (I grew up in Canada in the 70s and 80s – it’s sort of an obligation!) I remember almost nothing about my hours on the ice and in the locker room; I do, however, recall with great fondness the one time my father asked me to referee a game with him and a bunch of his friends. I had no idea what I was doing, but it felt like a real connection and it truly had nothing to do with being an orchestrated parenting moment; rather, they just needed someone to call icing and offside and occasionally drop a puck. But it felt real.

I encourage parents to allow space for these real moments as opposed to chasing them down by following the latest TikTok parenting trend. These trends, while perhaps interesting, are rarely genuine and can lead to a need on the parent’s part (and, ultimately, on the part of the kids too) to be perfect. Stress, anxiety, fear, guilt, shame – these are the emotions often associated with perfectionism.

So, let’s get messy.


How to be a messy parent:


Where possible - and this is hard - try not to compare yourself to other parents. Your relationships within your family are unique to your own family, and are really comparable to no one else. This means avoiding social media accounts that promote idealistic but unrealistic parenting recommendations. It’s harder than you may think to avoid due to algorithms designed to tap into your interests and anxieties, but fight hard against the urge. (Yes, I am aware that in offering advice in this column, I myself may be one of those people who set impossibly high standards – except I’m not! I’m just asking you to try to be messy!)

Let the kids steer once in a while (no, not the car!) Kids are, for the most part, silly creatures. They enjoy goofiness and unfortunately, we often lose this trait as we age. Kids can lead us into remembering the pure joy and fun of being silly. So, let them guide you into genuine moments that will most certainly not be perfect by the standards of many, but may just be those perfect moments associated with childhood.

Lose the ego. Right now, there are just under eight billion human beings living on this planet. You know how many are thinking about you right now? Quite likely, not counting yourself, the number is close to zero. I am not suggesting that you – or any of us – are insignificant and not worth a thought. I am suggesting, however, that perhaps we have an overinflated sense of how much people think about us when we are not around. So, if your child has a very typical supermarket or classroom meltdown, yes, it can feel humiliating and like you are simply the worst parent in the world. Just remember, every adult in that store was once a tantrumatic (new word!) child who embarrassed their parents at some store too. As were you! So, since we’ve all been there, no one is in a place of judgment. Again, it’s messy, but it’s genuine, too.

Set boundaries. Kids need boundaries, and messy parenting can help us develop strong and clear, but not rigid, boundaries. Remember the food fight I mentioned earlier? Fun, yes, but someone has to clean up. That should not be the parent – the parent can help, but the consequence to making a mess is that we need to clean it up. This is a natural consequence, and logical consequences are critical to developing psychologically healthy humans.

Avoid perfectionism. You know who is perfect? Me neither. I’ve never met a perfect person and hope I never do. It is our faults that humanize us and kids can be encouraged to make mistakes and to take risks provided that they learn from risks and mistakes. Perfectionists rarely take risks, and, as a result, become somewhat stalled in their development.

Think about the why. We all want our kids to be successful – but success is defined by multiple factors. Perfectionistic thinking and behavior is often foisted upon our kids without really thinking about why we are doing these things. Is it because the kids really enjoy activities seven days a week? Perhaps. Is it because we are in some weird sort of competition with other parents, many of whom we only know from their online presence and are people who we really do not know outside of their highlight reel online? More likely, this sense of perfectionism to be as good as other parents seem to be drives our behavior. 

So – why? Why does it matter and why do we care so much about what others think? Often, I find in my clinical work that the “why” is embedded in the parent’s own childhood experiences. Perhaps they felt they weren’t “good enough” and they didn’t meet parental expectations. Alternatively, they felt valued in sports or extracurricular activities and they want their own kids to have that same experience (except they won’t). Kids will find their own path to success; parents can only provide guidance and support. When we demand that kids do things the way we did them because it worked for us, we strongly imply that we are fundamentally better than our kids, and this message can easily be internalized. An internalized message of “I’m not as good as my parents” is tough to overcome. So again, let’s try to keep things messy. If we make genuine mistakes, our kids will learn that it is okay to try something, not meet with success, and life will go on.

Parenting can be messy work (just think about the first time you tried to feed your child spaghetti – you know this to be true!) but sometimes, it’s the messy work that is the most valuable.

Dr. Brent Macdonald is a frequent guest on CBC, Global Television, Breakfast Television, and CTV. He is currently the lead psychologist with his own practice, Macdonald Psychology Group (, which in addition to providing counseling and assessment services, also provides consultation services to educators and parents.


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