Parenting Past Perfection

“Daddy! Daddy! I finally got a perfect score on my math homework!”

Well, that’s new. She always gets a few answers wrong. I give my daughter a hug.

“That’s great hon! How?”

“I finally double-checked my work,” she says, beaming.

I put my arm around her shoulder. On the table is a clutter of papers on which there are numbers written every which way. No red marks.

“Guess what? Even if you got a few wrong, I’d still hug you.”

Did I just ruin my child? I hear my mouth saying those words while my eyes see an image of my three children happily coming home with Ds, sitting on my couch, asking me to fetch them a coke in the middle of a marathon X-Box session… in their 30s.

 

Do We Want Perfect?

Sure we do, if we’re honest. Perfect is beautiful, easy (though last I checked, easy didn’t show up in any definition of parenting that I’ve ever heard), neat. Perfect is problem-free.

Mostly though, perfect is unrealistic and potentially harmful. Why?

  1. Perfection can lead to lying. Your perfect angel(s) may always want you to believe they’re flawless, and you’ll keep buying it as long as they’re selling it because you yourself want to believe it. They may be showing you and their friends the Instagram version of their life, where you only see the best shots, filtered and touched up. You may not get to know them in full–the moments of failure, fear, and heartache. The stuff they never “post,” but precisely the moments where they most need a loving parent.
  2. Perfection can lead to not trying. Children who value perfection learn early on that one way to maintain a perfect track record is to never try anything where there’s real risk of failure. Perfection prevents you from dreaming big, from ever starting something that isn’t in the sweet spot of abilities.

This is sad. This is driving your porsche only on city streets when it was made for you push its limits on the open road level of sad. Isn’t life more fun when you see how far you can run, how much weight you can bear, and what you’re capable of? I want my children to know for themselves what T.S. Eliot wrote:

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

Perfectionism also makes for a poor investor. Investing (and life!) is about risks, and risk is about failure. Failure is about making you better for the next time you try. You know what those people who are so used to not failing do with their money? They put it in the bank savings account or a certificate of deposit, earning not even 1% interest a year. They’ve turned their risk switch off when it should be on.*

Here’s where it gets tricky. Perfection and achievement often end up tightly intertwined, so how do we loosen their fingers and decouple them? How do we raise our children not to care about perfection, but still strive?

Hopefully my kids’ adventures in basketball can help us out.

Perfectionism Played Out

Zuzzy steps up to the line. Dribble-dribble-heave. Airball.

Dribble-dribble-heave. Airball.

Dribble-dribble-heave. Airball.

“Forget it! I’m never playing again!”  She stomps away, picks up sidewalk chalk to draw variations on the same picture she always draws.

Zack picks up the ball. Airball. Airball. Less of an Airball. Hits the rim but misses. Tries again. Swoosh! In the following days, Zack starts hitting more than half the shots he takes.

2 inauspicious starts. 2 different outcomes. What happened? Zack kept going. While Zuzzy saw the 3 airballs as a judgement on her abilities and a threat to her perfection, Zack saw it as a process. 

I try to teach my children not to turn to quitting as their first reaction. So what did I do with Zuzzy?

Parenting Through Perfectionism

Emphasize Process** Over Outcome. I focus on process because outcome can’t always be controlled, but your process in achieving your goal can. Let the outcome be nothing more than a data point providing feedback on your process. I suggested to Zuzzy that she think about how the ball felt coming off her fingers–was there a difference between when it goes straight and high and when it goes to the side and low? Yes? Then keep doing more of what makes it go straight. Whether the ball makes it through the orange circle is secondary.

Be Honest. “You’re not that good right now. But if you make most of your shots the first time you tried, it would be really weird. You’re supposed to miss a lot when you’re starting. It’s supposed to feel hard. So keep thinking about how you’re standing and tossing the ball.”

Allow Failure. This is related to my first point. Failure is feedback–another data point. Allow your kids (and remind yourself!) to see that failure is not the end of the world. Our brains typically take the data point “fail” and deduct a few points from the “self worth” bank. What I’m trying to do is reprogram our minds to take “fail” and add it to the “experience” bank.

Celebrate Hard on the Next Try. Note that I didn’t say “celebrate hard after success.”  If you celebrate harder after success, then you’ve diminished your message, and you end up with I knew it! Daddy only really likes it when I’ve done well. 

In short, rejecting perfectionism is not being any less ambitious, but focuses that ambition on process and progress. Ironically, this is the method that gets us as close to “perfection” as we can get, but that’s beside the point.

Recovering Perfectionist

I struggle with perfectionism. It cost me one of my passions. Growing up, my hand was always attached to a pencil, making lines make shapes and shapes make sense. People say I got pretty good at it and awarded the drawings. I stopped my freshman year in college because honestly, I was overwhelmed with school, work study, and a social life.

I didn’t start again until 2 years ago after my children begged me to draw them something. I left my passion dormant for over a decade because I was scared–scared I’d never be as good as I once was. And I’m not, but recently I realized I’m okay with that.

How the Conversation Ended

… I see them on my couch in their 30s playing X-Box. I blink and decide I’m going to reject my fear.

“I don’t actually care about perfect. I care that you double-checked your work–that you decided you wanted to get better, and figured out the tool to do it. That’s what makes me excited.”

She wraps her arms around me and squeezes.



*For the most part and especially when they’re younger.

**Note that I didn’t say “practice.” Process is not necessarily the same as practice. Practice is more or less just repetition, whereas process is a deliberate and analytical approach to practice.


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