Why I Worry About My Rule-Following Kids

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Tetra Images / Getty Images

When my oldest child started kindergarten, I braced myself for all the struggles my mom friends had warned me about.

“He’ll be exhausted after school,” they told me. “He’ll struggle to sit still for a long time,” others warned. “He won’t have time to eat his whole lunch, he may not get to the bathroom in time, and he’ll have homework at too young of an age,” are all things I was told.

But my child didn’t struggle with any of those things. Honestly, the only hard part of kindergarten for him was when other kids misbehaved. And then, two years later, his younger sister started school full time and had the same issue. My older two kids like to follow the rules, and when other kids don’t, it stresses them out.

Then their little brother came into the world—a rule breaker from Day 1.

I’ve made no secret about my challenges with #3. I’ve talked about how, despite this being my third go-round, he makes me feel like a new parent damn-near daily. I’ve talked about how he shocks me, doing things his older siblings would never dream of, leaving me standing there, dumbfounded. He’s tested my very last shred of patience, exhausted me to the point of tears, and made me question my mothering on a regular basis. Yet, we are still here, plugging along, ending our days with snuggles, vowing to do better tomorrow (both him and me), sometimes succeeding and sometimes not.

But many nights, after he’s finally asleep and another long day has passed, do you know what I worry about the most?

Not about how I’ll parent him tomorrow, or how he’ll do in school, or if he’ll earn coveted after school privileges like skating in his new rollerblades or playing basketball, and how I’ll deal with the meltdown if tomorrow’s behavior means they weren’t earned. Some nights, the thing that keeps me awake at night with worry is how I might be failing my other kids. My other two children who run as fast as they can from trouble. Who follow rules religiously. Who desperately want to please their parents and teachers, and who pretty much never mess up.

I worry about them because I actually do want them to mess up. Or at least have the space and opportunity to mess up. I worry that they are so determined to maintain (or generate) the peace of our household, which is often turned upside down when their mom and little brother face conflict, that there isn’t room left for them to just be kids.

And to add to this tornado of motherhood anxiety, my two rule-following children seem to have inherited their mother’s exhausting drive for perfectionism. (Yay. *cries in my coffee.) It becomes apparent more and more each day that the two who run in a 180-degree direction from trouble, who have never had a negative report from any teacher, who get good grades, listen and follow directions, and always aim to please, are actually quite terrified of making a mistake.

Is this their natural disposition—a desire for perfectionism? Or is it also due to an extra pressure they put on themselves, thinking if they do nothing wrong ever, that it might balance out the negativity of our home when their brother is going through a rough patch?

I’m not entirely sure, but I do know this. I know first-hand that the mind of a perfectionist is a relentless, terrible place to be. In a New York Times article, writer Jessica Lahey articulates this struggle perfectly, as she says, “perfectionism robs children of opportunities to become stronger, more adventurous thinkers.”

It robs them of joy, too, as they become consumed with self-doubt and criticism and fear of failure. And that consumption of negativity prevents them from growing and learning from the experience, which is what mistakes in life are about.

The truth is, I want all of my kids to mess up so they know how to recover. So they know how to make things right. How to grow from a screw-up, apologize, realize where they went wrong, and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

I want them to come home late once in a while when they are teens (and probably get grounded for it.) I want them to push the limits a bit so they can learn how to navigate that thin path between asserting their independence and respecting their parents’ rules.

I want them to know it’s okay to make mistakes. That all kids do. And that even though it seems like their defiant little brother sucks the wind out of the room sometimes, that he’ll always be forgiven. And he’ll always be loved. And so will they. No matter what.

So here’s what I need to do as a parent to my kids, rule-followers or not. When my little guy is having a hot mess of a day, I need to ensure that I see my other kids. How is this affecting them? Are they internalizing my anger and frustration? Are they desperately trying to fix something to make everything better? Or did they too do something wrong that day and they’re too afraid to tell me now?

Is there enough space for them and my youngest to all be children who aren’t perfect?

Too often I spend so much time addressing my youngest child’s behavior that when I look back on my day, I wonder where my other kids were, how much they heard, how it must feel to live in a household with negativity when all they want is for everything to be perfect.

A Washington Post article addresses what it’s like for children who have a sibling with special needs. And although my son has no diagnosed special need, the issues described in this article can apply to any child whose sibling requires more attention from their parents, for whatever reason. “Many [children] feel like they can’t make mistakes because that would add to their parents’ burden, so they believe they must be perfect at all times,” the article explains. “This is an impossible standard to meet, and can lead to stress and feelings of inadequacy.”

That’s the worry that keeps me up at night.

So I’ve come to realize that sometimes I need to walk away from my child who’s obviously struggling and see if my other kids are also needing me, even if it’s not as obvious. I need to validate their struggles, their minor “mistakes,” which may seem inconsequential when their brother threw a ball through the window, and let them know that it’s okay. If they mess up and forget their homework or spill something or lose their brand-new winter gloves on the bus, they’ll be forgiven. They’ll have to figure out how to make it right (just as their brother does), how to apologize, and possibly face a consequence.

But then life will go on, and they’ll still be the perfectly imperfect kids that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Because I can speak from a lifetime of experience when I tell them that striving for perfectionism is the loneliest, most unfulfilling race in the world. And despite the varying levels of stress they put on their parents, each of them is exactly how they were meant to be—mistakes and all.

This article was originally published on