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Should We Push Our Children to Aim for Perfection?

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Ask IPS: Advice from psychological experts, drawing on Catholic faith and modern psychology

Question: I was wondering about the balance of aiming for perfection. As a parent, I want my children to do well in life, especially in school, but I also do not want to push my child too far. Is working for perfection with your children a positive thing?

William McKenna, MS; Clinical Psychology Extern at Catholic Charities: Excellent question! Before answering, however, I would like to present to you a quote from Coach John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach who led his team to 10 championship victories in 12 years. He said, “Perfection is what you are striving for, but perfection is an impossibility.”

It is very much a cultural mentality to strive to be perfect in every way. Every commercial and billboard tells us that we need to have perfect hair, the perfect car, the perfect relationship, perfect grades, etc. In the real world, though, as Coach Wooden points out, perfection is an impossibility. There are impossible standards all around us that are simply not attainable. No matter how hard I train and work, I will never be an Olympic sprinter. I might be able to increase my speed to more than it is right now, but the reality is, I’m slow. My body and muscle type are simply not right to be a sprinter.

What do we with this reality? Are we supposed to just sit down and accept the fact that we aren’t able to be perfect? Should we settle with the idea that what you see is what you get and nothing more is possible? Absolutely not!

There is a second part to Coach Wooden’s quote: “However, striving for perfection is not an impossibility. Do the best you can under the conditions that exist. That is what counts.”

If every person simply accepted where he or she was, Thomas Edison would not have tried and failed more than a thousand times before finally succeeding to create the lightbulb; no one would have ever climbed to the top of Mount Everest and Michael Jordan would not have launched a basketball career.

As a parent, I’m sure it can be easy to desire that your children become the best they can be. It is really good to have this desire for them and encourage them always to be the best versions of themselves. It is important, though, to remember to stay within the bounds of reality. Each person, from the day he or she enters this world, has a distinct set of DNA, the beginnings of every person’s unique personality and indeed a life calling or vocation. Your job as a parent is to educate them, form them and give them the tools to learn the value of hard work and virtue. This means you have the right and the duty to push your child to work hard in school. It is important to be educated and know how to use your God-given brain.

Kids don’t yet have the tools to generalize that doing those math problems or going to basketball practice when they don’t feel like it is giving them the skills to be able to handle the challenges that will come later in life. It has actually been studied that children who face and overcome challenges at a young age are more likely to be more strong and resilient when faced with hardships in adulthood than children who don’t.

Another important thing to remember is that we are each given different talents, different IQs, different body types and different internal drives. St. Therese wrote in her autobiography, “If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.” In other words, the difference in people’s desires and abilities is what makes the world interesting. I’ve known many an athlete who couldn’t care less about what score they got on their SATs and wound up having an awesome life coaching high school sports or as a general contractor.

I have a cousin, for example, who is an incredible artist. If you hand him a chunk of wood, he could chisel and sculpt it into almost anything you could imagine. His dad is a brilliant psychologist and extremely “book smart.” He recognized early on that my cousin was extremely talented and so encouraged him from a young age to begin tapping into that talent. With that little extra push, he was able to hone his skills and form his raw talent into a legitimate skill that he is now turning into a business.

My final comment is to reiterate the fact that every person is an individual with a unique set of talents and a unique calling in life. Do your best to help your children discover what it is they are good at and what they love. Greatness and success are best achieved by following your passions. They are not easy; that’s why it is helpful to have parents teach the value of hard work from a young age. Challenge them to do the things that are important (like understanding that darn multiplication problem), but understand that maybe little Johnny is simply not wired to be good at math. That’s okay. Help him learn to do his best in math anyway, because chances are, he will encounter many more multiplication problems in his life and he will need to know how to do it. But also help him to find what he is good at and work hard to grow in that.

 

William McKenna, MS, is a clinical extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services. The Institute for the Psychological Sciences offers graduates programs in psychology, both online and onsite in the greater Washington DC area. Visit www.ipsciences.edu for more information.

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