Perfection breeds perfectionism (or how to produce a meltdown)



Today, thanks to another blast of winter, I'm enjoying a fourth day in a row of stress-free, non-scheduled, simply delightful freedom. Last Thursday however, the day before this lovely polar vortex lull, I was experiencing the polar opposite. In this crazy family of ours, one thing we display from time to time is an eensy, teensy, weensy bit of anxiety. Thursday morning was one of those times. The girls were in the midst of semester exams, and both were heading into one of their most-feared finals. Even with extra sleep, thanks to a 2-hour weather delay, they were yelling and screaming at each other (and me) before we left the house, and finally one of them broke down in tears, stressing over her final and saying she was sure she would fail! It doesn't matter in this scenario which daughter it was, because the other daughter had had the same meltdown a couple of nights earlier when she felt she didn't have enough time to prepare, and was sure she would fail!

My day at work was fine except for recurring thoughts and worries of how my girls were doing on their dreaded finals, and whether I would hear good reports or horror stories at the end of the day. All of this made me ponder how we got to this point. My kids are not bad students, and as far as I can remember, have never failed a final. And while we have high expectations, we are far from the "Tiger Mother" when it comes to our parenting style. Still, when big tests, papers and projects arrive, there is palpable fear and anxiety that take over, and almost paralyze at times.

So, after much pondering, I concluded that in our kids, perfection breeds perfectionism. Like many others, our kids have each made the principal's list at school at least once. This is the list of kids with a 4.0 GPA for the semester. As parents, when those straight A's come home, we can't just say, "big whoop," or "boy, the teachers sure inflate the grades at your school, don't they?" Of course not! We beam and hug and reward with dinner out at Hacienda, or some other such praise. The school then adds flame to the fire. In middle school, the Principal's List students get to go out for lunch with the principal, and in high school, they receive academic honors and the bronze, silver, or gold "lamp of knowledge" pin to don proudly on their letter jackets.

All of this attention for a few good grades. It must feel pretty good. And so starts the vicious cycle of the pursuit of perfection, the need for all A's at all costs. What costs? Hmmm...peaceful evenings at home. Quiet stress-free mornings.  Sweet and civilized interactions between parent and child, sibling and sibling. The ability to tackle a big test, paper or project with composure and confidence. We compromise these things as they strive for an "A," an outstanding musical performance, or a good job review.

I think it's time to refocus the lens through which we view these performances. I'm certain we will continue to encourage our kids to strive to do their very best...not just in school, but in other areas of life as well. And we'll continue to work on anti-anxiety techniques...I can't handle too many more morning meltdowns! I've read how it is far more effective to praise a child's effort rather than the outcome, and have been trying to change my ways in that regard. But I still feel that the emphasis needs to change from a self-centered one that focuses on one's gifts and talents, to a God-centered one that focuses on the grace-filled giver.

I want to teach my children that in striving for high goals, they will inevitably fall short, and that that's where the grace of God comes in. Grace is that "A" in life that is not deserved. It's getting an award we haven't earned. It's unconditional.  To receive an "A" on an English paper, certain conditions must be must include five paragraphs in your essayshow both sides of the argument, use good grammar, correct spelling, etc. With Jesus, we can hand in our struggles, our weaknesses, and our failings,  and He will give us unconditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness. When we do this, we turn our focus toward Him and away from ourselves, and suddenly everything is in perspective.  

When we arrived at school last Thursday morning, something prompted me to  stop the girls before they got out of the car. I said, "Just a minute...we need to pray."I closed my eyes and said, "Dear Jesus, help the girls in their finals today. Keep them calm and help them to remember what they've learned. But most of all, Jesus, let them know you love them no matter what grade they get. Amen." In the middle of our imperfection and anxiety, I'm thankful that God gave me His grace, and that I was able to pass it on. Our perspectives changed, and a smile surfaced on my stressed-out daughter's face. An important lesson was learned that that I hope we all remember.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  (2 Cor. 12: 9a)