In our culture, social forces push children and teens to look, speak, and compose themselves perfectly—achieve the perfect grades, the BMI of 20.85, the prom queen’s tiara, the undefeated season. We weigh, rank, test, measure and chart them every which way from Apgar scores to SATs. In order that our kids can achieve perfection, parenting has become a profession.
But no one can be the perfect parent or, of course, the perfect child. The pendulum swings back and forth. As a reaction to the impossible work of ‘perfect’ parenting, parents grow demoralized and become permissive and laissez-faire. If our children aren’t perfecting themselves, we can’t figure them out. What do they want? What does he need? Why can’t she behave? Focused on gymnastics practice or math homework, we don’t help them to learn simple social graces, connect to their community, or help out around the house. They don’t feel needed or appreciated. They may never understand how to pick up after themselves, write a sincere thank you note or support a sad friend because these parts of childhood don’t lend themselves to perfecting.
The culture of perfection is as deeply embedded as the American Dream. Our children still learn the mantra: “You can have everything you want—if your work for it.” Just do it. Go for it. You’ll get it all— looks, friends, honors and college admission.
Sensible adults know that this is not true. The world is not a meritocracy and luck plays an enormous role in our lives. Work hard all your life—and still you might not get what you want. We’re afraid of telling that truth. But we must. We need to focus on helping our children build resilience and problem-solving skills. A securely attached confident child has a better chance in life than one who has been pushed and over-praised, and panics without a parent’s tight rein for guidance and reinforcement.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” This is a better mantra. It should be carved into the bricks at the top of every school entrance. The quest for perfection breeds envy, jealousy, and loss of connection. Love and work are what make us happy—and neither require perfection.
Photo credit: Tracy Shaun