Friday, November 30, 2007

Encouraging Excellence Without Making Little Perfectionists (Copywork: Part Two)

In the discussion last night about perfect execution in handwriting, a few comments mentioned the issue of how to encourage excellence without fostering perfectionism. I thought about this more today, and I wanted to come back to it a bit.

I'm going to make the assumption that we all value excellence in the little things. That may or may not be true for you, but the rest of this post is going to at least assume that it's true ;) Making beds neatly, sweeping the little crumbs as well as the big ones, writing carefully, etc. (I might draw the line at making houses out of cards, though). The only exceptions are when excellence in bigger things overshadows excellence in little things. For instance, if my children are sick I'll leave the kitchen a bit messy until tomorrow. Being a tender, loving Mama over rules being a good housekeeper at that instant. In general, though, excellence in little things matters. So, slacking on the little things in order to avoid perfectionism is not an option.

How, then, can we communicate high goals to our children without setting them (and ourselves) up to be completely high-strung perfectionists? I think a great deal of the success lies in understanding at least four things.

Firstly, it's important to understand that we are completely fallible creatures with finite resources and abilities. In other words, we can't do it all as perfectly as it can be done, we can only do it as perfectly as we can do it. We can't do more than we can do. I know that's rather obvious, but less obvious is where that statement leads. This means that one man's work well done is not necessarily another man's work well done. I'm not trying to be completely relativistic here. There are absolute measures of what is excellent and what is not. Within those parameters, though, there will be varying degrees for each individual that depend upon his circumstances, personalities, abilities, etc. All we can do is what the grace of God and our own variables allow. Teaching our children that we all have limits (and letting them see our own) and that we all ultimately must lean on God for strength is a first step in combatting perfectionism.

The second helpful thing to understand is that when we react negatively to doing something imperfectly, it is usually stemming from a heart of pride. Why should it matter if the kitchen floor is not perfectly spotless when the company comes? Is it because we truly want that shiny floor to honor our guests or is it because we know our homes are a reflection of us and we want to look good? Pride has got to be one of the all time sneakiest sins. Why does a 7 year old get so angry when he can't figure out the answer to his math question or get his bike to do a wheelie? Chances are that he's good at a lot of things, so good at them that it's really a shot to his pride to have to work much at anything. Addressing the issue of pride in perfectionism is another helpful step.

Thirdly, I would think that a great deal of perfectionism in children is directly linked to their parent's emotional reactions to imperfection. Pressure to do it right. Last fall, I was expecting my Little Dude and was, at times, a little - well - hormonal. I remember getting especially annoyed at SweetP one morning during copywork. Usually such a good writer, it was like she went dull overnight! It was erase this and erase that. I was tired, sick, and really not excited about copywork. My daughter was feeling tense because I was on edge and the whole thing was starting to turn bad. Thankfully, it all worked out in the end, but I got a good look at what pressure does to a child. You can effectively encourage a child to do better without pressuring him to do so. It requires patience, time, and restraint, but it can be done. If you can somehow keep a matter-of-fact view of the whole process, without emotional reactions, that's half the battle of keeping pressure (and corresponding perfectionism) out of lessons.

Lastly, (and this one is especially pertinent to our relationships with our children) we need to see our actions as separate from our intrinsic worth. When my daughters do really excellent work, heaven forbid that I should do anything to communicate that I value them more for it. When they are sloppy with their work, may it never be that I lead them to believe I value them less for it. It is the work we are talking about, not my love for them. If we sense that our children are trying to "perform" for us, that ought to be a serious concern. Children must, from the first, learn that our love for them is because of who they are as our children, not because of what they do. Do you see how profound this is in predisposing children toward the gospel? Not that we can save them, but we can do much to either prepare their hearts for the truth of God's grace or we can set up a stumbling block in their way by fostering a works based righteousness in their little hearts. When they produce faulty or careless work, they must know that we are dissatisfied with the work, not with them. And we must leave them with the hope that they can do that work better.

There's a whole lot more, I'm sure, that could be said. This tension between encouraging excellence and discouraging perfectionism is an important one to resolve. It really touches on so much of life, not just homeschooling. I look forward to hearing thoughts on this :) I learn so much from your comments!