When I was a child, my parents praised our good grades, but we were never punished for not making the honor roll. Their motto was to encourage us to always try our best and to let that be enough. I was absolutely terrible at math, I couldn’t kick or catch a ball to save my life, and I always earned average grades in handwriting. Though these frustrated me, my parents didn’t add to my angst by criticizing me for my third-grade academic or athletic shortcomings. When my parents cut me some slack, I was learning an important lesson.
I’m passing this same lesson on to my own four children, mostly because I think perfectionism is unhealthy. It only breeds frustration, anxiety, and exhaustion. Nothing is ever good enough when you seek to be the best, because there’s always someone better and there are always new goals. Being number one isn’t what life should be about. In case you forgot, our children learn by screwing up. Trying their personal best is what matters most, especially right now, because COVID-19 is making life exceptionally more difficult for all of us.
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Perfectionism tries to protest us. It tries to avoid uncomfortable feelings, situations, and failures. The challenge is that is doesn't work. We can't avoid making mistakes. We can't avoid misunderstandings. We can't make everyone around us happy. Perfectionism sets unrealistic and unrelenting expectations and ideals, which sets us up for failure from the beginning. We are human and we make mistakes. Perfectionism in new motherhood can contribute to postpartum anxiety and depression because motherhood often doesn't go the way we expect and may result in feelings of shame. Do you struggle with perfectionism? Two of my favorite mantras for perfectionism are "done is better than perfect" and "progress over perfection" What has helped with your perfectionism?
When we started forced remote learning in the spring, I quickly remembered why it’s so important to encourage our kids to be their best, but not fixate on the shortcomings. There were so many shortcomings, many of which weren’t our (or anyone else’s) fault. The Zoom calls were glitchy, if we could even get on them. Assignments wouldn’t upload, we would miss deadlines completely, and we couldn’t find required materials. With four kids e-learning, we could be a hot mess all of the time due to the circumstances. Instead, we’ve decided that we were just going to do our best and let that be good enough.
In the spring, I realized that if I got frustrated over every single flaw, my kids only got more frustrated. I realized that if I was doing my best, my kids were doing their best, then why were we so miserable? It was a choice, really. The reality is that all kids are “behind” now because of the school shutdowns, and there’s no reason to spend every waking hour in a mad rush to a finish line that doesn’t exist. We were, and still are, on an academic treadmill. We just keep going.
I’m going to air my dirty laundry here. I don’t check my kids’ grades. I don’t track their assignments. I don’t do their homework for them, so they can get a “good grade.” We don’t have any intricate reward or punishment systems, either. You probably already guessed that I do not pay or bribe my children to make the honor roll. If they make honor roll, that should have intrinsic value. If they don’t make the honor roll, that shouldn’t be the end of the freaking world. Either way, I am proud of them.
My children aren’t their academic scores, statistics, or assignments. They are learning the midst of a global pandemic, which is difficult beyond description. Currently, I have one child homeschooling, one remote learning, and two learning in-person. That alone is an accomplishment—for them and for me. Because of all the factors, including masks, distancing, technology, and seemingly daily policy changes, I’m going to adhere to the “do your best” philosophy more than ever before.
Sometimes their best is merely showing up for school. Sometimes their best is acing a social studies test. Sometimes they’re going to fail to understand an assignment and fail it. In the grande scheme of life, does any of this really matter right now? I just hope they are kind to the friend who got their feelings hurt, studied hard for their test, and experienced the joy of learning.
Of course, I don’t leave my kids to flounder and fail. This isn’t a too-bad-so-sad situation. If my tween needs help with a math problem, I’m going to review it with her. If my other tween asks, I will certainly help her study for her spelling test. If my second-grader is overwhelmed after a long day of remote learning, we will absolutely be taking an extra “recess.” I have to remind them sometimes that they need to do their best, or that I am certain that they can do more or better on a particular assignment or task. However, this doesn’t mean I push them to the brink of a breakdown.
My big family has never had it all together, and right now, in the midst of pandemic schooling, we are far (so far) from being the cream of the crop. What matters most is that our children (ourselves and our educators) are physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy. This means letting our best be just that, our best, and letting the rest go.
If you see my minivan cruising through town, you won’t spot a “my child is on the honor roll” sticker on the back windshield. That’s hardly what makes my kids awesome. The fact that we’re blasting their favorite station or talking about how our day went is what matters. Sharing, encouraging, and reminding are important conversations. Lectures about trying harder, pushing more, and attaining a certain level aren’t.
To me, failing means having perpetually miserable children who put impossible standards on themselves (and parents who perpetuate or initiate that). Success comes from perspective, an understanding that we are doing our very best in an unprecedented situation. We all need grace, patience, support, and encouragement. Most of all, we all need to be reminded that we are doing our best and that is absolutely good enough.