If You’re Parenting a Perfectionist

If You’re Parenting a Perfectionist

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I’m raising a perfectionist.  Not on purpose, just because sometimes kids are born with certain personality traits and parents are left to embrace, change or otherwise deal with them.

Perfectionism, like busy-ness, is one of those idealized traits in our world.  We confuse them both with other, more worthwhile, ways of measuring our value.  Until well into adulthood, I honestly thought that being a perfectionist was a good thing.  “I’m a perfectionist,” was just another way of saying, “I like to do well.”

Let’s get that straight first: perfectionism isn’t about whether you want to do well.  Having passion for one’s work is not the same is perfectionism.  Perfectionism is the gnawing sense that your worth depends on your work.  Passion is being engaged in the world and looking for ways to use your gifts. 

Perfectionism

For the perfectionist, failure is a hard, hard business.  Now obviously, no one enjoys failing.  It’s really about what happens afterwards.  For parents, raising a kid who can recover from failure should be a top priority: 

  • Kids who can cope with failure are more likely to try new things.
  • Trying new things is a crucial part of learning.
  • Distinguishing between “who I am” and “what I can do” is the only way to happiness.
  • Trusting that others will love us, even when we mess up, is a journey of faith.

Last week, in a burst of new year self-improvement, I sat my family down at the kitchen table and asked them to fill out goal sheets for the new year.  Then we passed our sheets around, letting each person fill in some goals for everyone else.  For my daughter, I wrote, “Fail on a test.”

“WHAT!?” She looked incredulous as she read it.  “WHY WOULD I WANT TO DO THAT?”  Seriously.  The look of scorn and disbelief could only be rivaled by a 13 year old.

“Because you’re really good at a lot of things.  And you work really hard on a lot of other things until you get better.  But messing up on something makes you feel like a bad person.  So I think you should mess up on something, on purpose, just to see what happens.”  My husband chimed in with zenlike co-parenting skills. “You know, that’s the hardest thing for me to teach people at work.  I work hard to teach grown-ups how to fail.  It would be great to master it when you’re young.”

I know.  This plan is not perfect:

1) She won’t really do it.    

2) It’s not technically a real failure if you actively try to fail.  That’s actually a success. 

Still, it introduced a topic of conversation that was deeper than the cursory “I love you even if you mess up” talk.  It allowed us to point out that failure could be part of what you love about somebody, not just something you tolerate in them. 

We all talk a lot about loving people “even when” they fail.  But what if more of us talked about loving people “because” they failed?  It would, after all, be another way of saying, “I love you because you’re human and because you’re God’s.”  It would be a step along the path to real, genuine unconditional love. 

Of course, this is all pretty easy when things are low stakes.  I have very little invested in my daughter’s second grade test scores.  I couldn’t care less about one measly score.  But I wonder about taking things to the next logical step.  Could I really, truly, love someone because they failed?  Could I look at the people who have let me down in their human, fallible way and love them because they’d even tried?  Or love them simply because they’d even let me into their life enough so that their failures were noticeable?

I don’t know.  That’s a tall order.  But I’m going to add that to my list of goals for the year.  “Learn to love people because they fail.”  Sounds like we all have a year of big lessons.

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