Day 6 of Mind in the Making – Too Easy!

Zach was talking to his grandmother this weekend on speaker phone, and she asked how homeschool was going.

“It’s good.”

“It is?  What are you learning?”

“Nothing.  It’s easy.”

“It’s easy?  Well, aren’t you learning writing and math and history?”

“Nope. We don’t do those. Everything is easy.

Which would be bad news if it were true.  But it’s not.  It’s just that Zach has to say that everything is easy to maintain his sense of himself as being good at school.  He rushes through work because he believes that smart kids get their work done quickly.  If I point out that he made a mistake and ask him to fix it, he stomps, protests, and often cries.  If he feels like something is beyond his reach and he can’t figure out how to get out of doing it, he melts down.

Good times.

But I soldier on.  Because according to Ellen Galinsky in her book Mind In The Making, kids need to learn how to take on challenges.   Children who learn how to manage the stress that comes with challenge perform better in school and in life. Without that ability, they’ll back out of taking the AP class or asking out the spunky girl or sticking with basketball when they don’t make the varsity team.

Galinsky suggests that parents follow Carol Dweck’s advice.  Dweck is a researcher at Stanford who says that we need to praise effort that leads to success, not innate qualities like intelligence or athletic giftedness. Instead of telling a child, “You’re such a smart girl” after she completes a difficult puzzle, you should say, “You kept working and working on it, and eventually you figured it out.” Dweck found that children who were praised for their intelligence were less likely to work hard on more difficult puzzles than those students who were praised for their effort. That sounds reasonable.

Charlotte Mason offered her own advice on how to help children rise to challenges, and it sounded less reasonable to my modern ears when I first read it.  She wrote over a century ago that parents need to cultivate the habit of perfection.

What?  Perfection?  How am I going to get a stressed out kid to try more difficult work if he knows that anything but perfection will be unacceptable?  Maybe they didn’t have tangrams in Victorian England.  (This morning Zach shouted “I quit!” before he started each tangram puzzle I presented, in part I think because he was so frustrated by not being able to get the pieces to sit together perfectly.)  And what happened to praising effort?

But as I read more, I realized that asking for perfection might be exactly what Zach needs. Maybe we need to help him learn that if he keeps working on something without giving up he can do it correctly.  There is no need to rush.  We aren’t measuring speed, but accuracy.

Mason writes:  A child should not be assigned work that he isn’t capable of doing perfectly, and perfect work should be expected as a matter of course…His moral integrity is compromised from getting by on less than his best.

It’s been a revelation to me.  We do it until it’s perfect.  Every problem.  Every date. Every homework assignment.  Every clean up session.  I’ve spent years telling Zach to lighten up and accept that things don’t have to be perfect.  “It’s good enough, buddy.”  But now I’m rethinking that strategy.  I think I may have inadvertently made him more stressed out. He wanted to have the time to put his sock on just so.  I wanted to get out the door.  He wanted to erase his entire paper and start over.  I wanted to put away his homework so we could have dinner.  He needed to process with me before he started an activity what the goal of the activity was.  (Are we trying to get every single toy put away?  Or are we trying to get as many toys put away as we can in the five minute we have?) I just wanted to get moving – without helping him learn how to manage his stress by setting a reasonable goal or setting a new goal when the first was out of reach.  I need to slow down, and give him assignments or chores that he can do properly in the amount of time we have.  Then I can praise him, as Dweck suggests, for working hard to set an appropriate goal and working hard to achieve that goal.  Perfectly.

At least that’s what I’m thinking today.  Thoughts?  Is perfection a ridiculous goal?

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  • Helen

    Since I have 2 high-stress kids, I think about perfection, too, and so far I've concluded that aiming for perfection is not a good thing for my kids because 1, it's not possible, and 2, it creates soooo much stress (for me as well as the kids), and 3, it doesn't account for grace, which we talk about so much. Moral integrity is something to desire in our kids, but because we're broken and sinful, and because we're imperfect parents, perfect integrity is just not possible.

    So I think aiming for excellence is far more attainable and grace-filled than perfection. I've been telling my kids that in all we do, we aim for excellence, not perfection. And that excellence is going to look different for different people.

    What do you think?

    • tedelschick

      I like the idea of excellence. But how do you define that?

      Also, I think that Mason would argue that in the school context we shouldn't be asking our kids to do things they cannot execute perfectly. What are we teaching them if we give them work that they can do "well enough?"

      I'm torn, because I want them to be able to fail and pick up and try again. But I have to admit that since we have been shooting for perfection, Zach is working more carefully AND calmly. Not always, but there are times now when he gives himself permission to slow down and do it right. The times when he really loses it these days are when there is no chance of getting it right.

      • Helen

        Excellence often ends up being perfection, which is great! It's those times that, even if we ask kids to do something that we think they are capable of doing perfectly and they still fall short, I wonder where the grace is? I don't think we should settle for "good enough" if it means shoddy work, but I also don't think we as parents/teachers will always be able to perfectly judge what a child should be able to do perfectly. So many things can't be judged on a 0-perfect scale. What's perfect for handwriting? What's perfect for writing a creative story? What's perfect for understanding a concept?

        • tedelschick

          Yes, I think that excellence is probably a better word. I'm sure that Ellen Galinsky would not approve of my twisting her ideas around to make them some form of self-esteem crushing boot camp. Maybe perfection worked better in the 1800s?

          Last week, we memorized a poem that the boys love and are now quoting back to me when I want to rush them through something:

          "Work while you work. Play while you play.

          This is the way to be happy each day.

          Do what you do with all of your might.

          Things done by halves are never done right."

          I think that both Ellen and Miss Charlotte would approve of that poem.

  • Marilyn

    Hi Tara! My first response just got lost in never-never land… (A consequence of my own imperfection in putting in the required name and email information I suppose…)

    I talked about my own love-hate relationship with perfection and my gut reaction being that I would hate to give up on the concept of "Perfect" and simply settle for "Excellence", especially when God's word has a lot to say about perfection.

    I had a lot of pretty phrases — about not wanting to settle for a world of chipped plates, broken glasses, or jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces and calling it "excellence". I talked about the God-given desire in each of us to strive toward perfection and the fruit you saw in your son (less stress and greater calmness) when he was allowed the time to strive toward that idea of perfection that was inside of him.

    I wrote about God's perfection — of Jesus Christ as the pure and spotless lamb, well-able to save us completely, nothing missing, nothing broken, seeing us as pure and whole when He looks through the blood that was shed for us. That He sees me differently than I see me. Just as you see your kids with a view toward a desire and longing that they live perfect lives — but within the context of who they are in all the fullness of their personalities, not just miniature robots who deliver predictable results when you plug in the penny.

    That the key is making sure that I am aligning my expectations of "perfection" with what God's expectations are…. And allowing myself the grace to let perfection be a process rather than an instantaneous got-to-have-it-now-if-not-sooner target.

    1 Peter 5:10 After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

    James 1:4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

    Philippians 1:6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

    1 Corinthians 13:10 …but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.

    Matthew 5:48 Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

  • Marilyn

    Oh my goodness! Light begins to dawn… As I re-read what I've just written, I see new (as if for the first time) how the Father shapes me just as you shape your boys. That it is far more about developing my character and preparing me for my future than it is about the [rrnzzz…insert Harsh buzzer sound here] "WRONG!" judgment of the immediate challenge in front of me. It isn't about making the grade or not on the test today. It's about allowing the test today to be a marker of my progress toward the goal–His goal of perfection for me. That it is a loving Father who desires His best for me with a view toward eternity, not a double-or-nothing-instant-elimination round designed to take me out of the game of life today….

    Heb 12:4-13 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, "MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES." It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.