Being a Perfectionist Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

My son checked a book out of the school library called Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good?

As a person who consumes books, he breezed through it – then brought it to me and said, “Mommy, I think you’d like this.”

I said ok, put it on the stack of books beside my bed and went back to whatever I was doing. A few days later he came up to me and asked how I liked the book. Um, well, hadn’t cracked the cover yet.

He wore a pained expression, as if he were disappointed in me. Ok, ok, I said. I’ll read it.

But a few more days passed and I just didn’t get to it. I know, you’re thinking, what a bonding opportunity, my child wants to share something with me and I’m blowing him off. Awful mom. Well, I don’t know, the book just didn’t sound so compelling – when I could be leafing through a suspenseful novel full of romance and intrigue.

Finally, after a few more inquiries by my child, who was clearly not letting this go, I opened the book and began to read.

So last night, this is what I saw:

“Today many psychologists are saying that instead of pressuring little kids to learn facts and read flashcards, it’s better to take them on nature walks, build sandcastles with them, and spend time together playing imaginative games and participating in unstructured activities.” (And not perfect, contest-winning sandcastles, mind you – just the kind you can do with a shovel and a pail. Fun. Have fun.)

Further down the page: “Working can be as addictive as drugs or gambling. Unlike drugs or gambling, however, it’s something that parents support and encourage without realizing the danger.”

Finally: “Studies have shown that workaholics suffer from higher stress levels and have a greater tendency to ‘burn out’ than people whose lives are more balanced. It’s important to work, but it’s also important to play.”

You’re probably thinking, of course, I know this! But do you follow it in your daily decisions? Really?

I know I don’t. Is life a true balance of work and play? Probably not. In this country we are skewed so far over to the work side that when we play, we play so hard and so intensely that we end up needing a vacation from the vacation.

And here my 11-year-old is giving me this book to read. Thanks, Asher. I guess we both needed it.

Last night, I asked him why he was so compelled to read this book and then to share it with me. Quick answer: “I probably get my tendency to be a perfectionist from you, Mommy.” Gulp.

Is this the legacy I want to be leaving my kids? Kill yourself by working so hard that you have no balance? Strive to be perfect? Lord knows I am not perfect – but if that is the message my children are getting, well, then I need to start crafting a new message.

Instead of the occasional walk in the woods, it needs to be routine. Instead of scurrying to do homework after an 8.5 hour day at school, encourage them to play. Stretch. Relax. Have fun.

Except in today’s academic world – and my kids go to public school at that! – it’s all about grades, and achievement, and homework, and don’t forget the test on the day before Thanksgiving break. Really? Is this truly what’s important?

I know kids in elementary school who already are concerned with what will help them get into a good college. I’ve told my kids recently I don’t care which college they go to and that every college has redeeming qualities – it’s what you do post-college that really makes a life. Don’t kill yourselves for Harvard; a tiny private school in the country could be an even better experience.

The other day my daughter asked me if everyone has to go to college. The answer: No. Not really. We are conditioned to believe it so and I do think it gives you a leg up in the work world. But it is not a necessity.

This is a child who yearns for a culinary career. Perhaps culinary school or apprenticeship under great chefs is better for her. And I am all for it.

Because I live outside the box myself, I really encourage that in my kids. Except, I have them enrolled in a school setting which pushes certain constraints and strictures. In my ideal scenario, they don’t go to school but are autodidactic, self-educated according to their interests and their own pace.

Back to reality. I’m glad my son is pushing me to read the book on perfectionism. Perhaps in the end, we can both breathe a little more easily.

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