Parenting through Failure

How do I encourage my children through failure?

Question

My 7-year-old daughter is a perfectionist. She can’t seem to have fun because she gets frustrated when things aren’t like she wants them to be. For example, she wanted to build a fort in our back yard, but because she couldn’t find trees spaced out perfectly together in our yard, she just gave up and didn’t pursue it. I fear that if we can’t help her with this now, it will just become worse when she’s an adult. Any ideas?

Answer

You are wise to want to catch this early. In today’s competitive world, this is a common problem many parents face. Young people face tremendous external pressures to be the best, to be all that they can be which often gets translated into having to be better than anyone else. In the athletic world, being number two means that you have failed. Only if you win the Super Bowl can you hold your head high and consider yourself a success.

It’s easy for kids to translate this mentality into a “performance-based” view of self. This perspective says that, “I am only as good as my last performance or task” and if it’s not perfect, then not only have I failed but I AM a failure. Since nothing can ever be 100% perfect this view is a set-up for fear, anxiety, and depression.

As parents we want to help our kids develop a “person-based” view of their value and worth. This view communicates the value of who they are in terms of their character and integrity, over what they do. Don’t get us wrong, the “what” is important but we’ve discovered that when we help them cultivate their character, their integrity, and their heart for the Lord, they naturally move towards excellence in their performance or what they do.

The best way to accomplish this is revealed to us in Deuteronomy 6: 1-9, where God speaks through Moses to let the parents know the importance of not merely telling their children the right way but modeling it before them. In verses 7-9 Moses says, “Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are getting up again. Tie them to your heads as a reminder, and wear them on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Some truths are better caught than taught.

How can you model a different way? Show her by the way you live your life and by the standards you set for yourself that there is a big difference between pursuing excellence and pursuing perfection. Pursuing excellence involves doing the very best I can in the time I have, with the energy and resources I have available to me at that time. This means that “excellence” will look different at different times. Let her see times when it is not only okay, but it is great to do a good job (pursuing excellence) rather than a perfect job.

Catch yourself doing the best job you can and “think out loud” in front of her that you could probably do it with a bit more perfection but that might mean not getting other important jobs done, it might mean being late for an important appointment or it might mean not being able to do something with her. In other words, without lecturing her, you can help her see the high cost and long term consequences of perfectionism.

At the same time, catch her being excellent. Catch her doing a good job and let her know that she’s already done what needs to be done. If she complains that she “could” do it better or “should” do it better, you can agree with her and ask, “But how will taking more time doing it better make any difference?” and if she spends more time on this task, where will she find the time for the other things she wants to do.

Also, look for every opportunity to catch her being kind, and thoughtful, and considerate, and responsible, and reinforce the dickens out of her. Make sure she gets more encouragement for her “person” than she does for her “performance.”

As you are faithful over a period of three to six months to both model and reinforce pursuing excellence over perfection, you will begin to see a real difference.

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