Freedom lies in accepting our whole, imperfect selves and giving up the need for perfection.Dr. Edith Eger
Dr. Eger reminds us that to be human means we are fallible. To be human means we are going to make mistakes. This week I was waiting for the perfect inspiration to come to me for this post and I’ve been waiting all week. Only to be reminded that perfection is procrastination.
I see this with children all the time. A block building that might fall, letters not formed perfectly or artwork that isn’t just right — the fear of making a mistake. It can be absolutely paralyzing. So much so that some children don’t even want to initiate the activity. The age old, What if? question is asked time and time again, serving as a barrier to starting.
As often as I have seen this with children, I have also seen it with myself. Take this blog, for example. What if no one reads it? What if I don’t have time to write every week? What if prevented me from starting for quite some time. Thanks to a few key cheerleaders (Thank you Katie, Mom and Beth!), they challenged me to answer those questions. And Calm Chaos was born over two years ago. Was it the right time? Is there ever a right time?
This is when I realized that perfection really is another word for procrastination. Waiting and making excuses was quite easy for me. Dr. Eger says, “Whatever you practice, you get better at.” I had become excellent at excuses and didn’t start writing. I procrastinated, waiting for perfection.
And how often does this same truth come into play in our parenting? Are we waiting to be the perfect parent? Spoiler alert. You aren’t going to be. And neither am I. There are no amount of books to be read, podcasts to be listened to, or time spent meditating that will result in becoming the world’s most perfect parent. And man, can you imagine the pressure you would feel to maintain that status if it were actually attainable? Stress, anxiety, worry, and fear would be looming around every corner. Which demystifies the entire desire for perfection in the first place!
Looking at perfection from a different angle, I think it really is about the fear of failure. We sometimes convince ourselves that anything short of being perfect is a complete failure — which couldn’t be further from the truth. Thomas Edison made 1,000 failed attempts at inventing the lightbulb. Is he a failure?
I talk to a lot of parents and teachers about resilience. It is something that everyone wants for their kids. Resilience means the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Those difficulties, by another name, are failures. It leaves me at this crossroad: We want our kids to recover quickly from the failures they inevitably will face, yet the fear of not being perfect is preventing them from even attempting to begin.
I can’t help but think about what we are modeling, or not modeling. Do we highlight for kids when we work hard at something? It is a beautiful opportunity to demonstrate resilience. To model that you are not good at something when you started (and maybe still aren’t.) I try and highlight for my kids when things are hard for me. A recipe that doesn’t go well, an exercise I am working on, a lesson I’ve taught my students that didn’t go well – mommy is FAR from perfect. (One of my favorite Jess Sims quotes is, “You can be a masterpiece and a work in progress at the same time.)
The phrase, “good job” is used all the time with children. We praise them for just about everything, whether they worked hard or not. Instead, I try and praise the process (which ironically was one of my first posts). You stayed with it! You were focused and figured it out! When they finally learn how to get that darn Play-Doh lid off, Good job just flies out of our mouth! What does it mean? And how does it help? I am really interested in the idea of feedback/praise and how it impacts behavior. The more specific the feedback, the more helpful it is to growth and change. Further, what we praise also signals to our kids what matters to us. If we praise them only when they are successful, we are equating success/perfection as being worthy of praise. So if you don’t get the lid off the Play-Doh this time, you are not worthy of praise? I’d argue it should be the other way around. You worked hard trying to pry that lid off. Your fingers are getting stronger every day. Do you want me to help or are you going to stay with it?
A final thought is this classic quote by Robert Schuller: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I challenge this quote to say, “What will you attempt to do knowing you WILL fail?” Let’s rethink failure and perfection. Let’s be mindful of praising effort over outcome. And let’s be living examples, for our kids, of what is looks like to have the courage to stop procrastinating. As Brené Brown so beautifully reminds us, “Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking.”