Abandon perfection... or embrace it? (How to raise an adult, task #4)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step four: abandon perfection. 

Or, at least, that's what Julie Lythcott-Haims says. Today marks the fourth installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult, drawing extensively from her book of that name!

Lythcott-Haims writes:

one of the hardest aspects of letting our kids do the stuff of life for themselves is giving up on an ideal of perfection that we can most likely achieve but our kids most likely can't.

I'd like to question this, but first: oh, do I feel it!

Me, I like a clean floor. Clean floors in the evening make me feel calm, and in control of my thoughts and life. My two kids (ages three and nearly-six) don't yet seem to share my obsession!

Now, we're making progress toward having a clean floor. (Deciding that all toys still on the floor at night would be confiscated for a week has made a big difference.) But we're still not there — small cars are still stuck beneath chairs, ponies are still wedged under the refrigerator.

For the last few years Kristin and I have been doing the cleaning ourselves, leading to two outcomes: (1) The floor has occasionally been perfectly clean. (2) Our kids have hardly even begun to learn to clean.

Dumb, dumb!

We've been holding on to the ideal of "perfect" — and not demanding as much of our kids as we ought. In the words of developmental psychologists, we've been indulgent.

We've only recently started letting go of perfect — and about time!

Lythcott-Haims writes:

Perfectionism... is the enemy of adulthood.

I entirely agree with this... except.

It seems to me that this ideal (abandon perfection) is in tension with another ideal: pursue perfectionApproching perfection is what motivates gymnasts, and artists, and pitchers. It's what motivates poets, and mathematicians, and scientists, and activists.

Now, that's (obviously) not to say that actual perfection is possible. But setting a very high standard, and working diligently toward it, is one of the marks of an adult — at least, the sort that we're trying to cultivate.

"The goodness and badness of perfection" is a much larger topic than I'm able to limn out this morning — but I want to identify a possible tension here. And so I'll leave us with a question:

How can we balance "abandon perfectionism" and "set high ideals" in a school?

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA