Far too many teens have told me, “My best isn’t good enough.” Our young people are getting a message that they cannot measure up. No matter how hard they try, it isn’t going to be enough. I tell them that all the world can expect is their best effort. “No,” they tell me, “The world wants more than I can do.”
Messages about our capability and our development of a sense of self begin in early childhood and continue to bombard us throughout our lives. Glorious is the day when we are at an age when we can accept our own strengths & weaknesses and no longer give merit to the opinions of others. I think that time comes for many of us in middle age – that moment when we no longer care what other people think of us. I wonder if today’s teens will ever get there. The messages they are getting about unachievable expectations are so ingrained and defeating. We need to do better for them and for children currently in their early childhood years. Here’s a start:
- Teach our children that they can fail and bounce back. Mistakes are so costly these days. The written test of rote facts is given too much weight. Products – answers on paper - matter when actually it should be all about the process of learning. People, adults included, have very little patience with the learning process of others and want everything to be perfect from the start. We fail and so we learn. Then, we can walk a little better through our world – a little more knowing and wise, a little more cautious and questioning. There is nothing wrong with learning from mistakes and failures; yet, we are living in a time that has no patience for it and our children get the message that anything less than perfection will elicit unending and irreparable guilt, blame and anger. Make it okay for our children to be wrong. Tell them, “Okay so you made a mistake. Let’s figure out what we do now. Where do we go from here?” The world won’t end because they need to regroup and start again.
- Teach our children that we don’t expect perfection from anyone. We live in a cast blame society. When people feel threatened, they tend to lash out and people spend a lot of time feeling fearful & threatened in today’s world. Whatever happens, it is the company’s fault or the school’s fault or the teacher’s fault or anyone else’s fault but our own. It is true that institutions can make mistakes, too. We have to teach our children to accept that no one, not one person or any place, is perfect. Even more importantly, we aren’t expecting perfection. When we cast blame and virtually say, “They should have been perfect,” children see that perfection is expected and mistakes are not acceptable. Yes, the boss can be wrong. The company can be ridiculous. Our error is in not accepting that. We cannot control them but we can use coping and critical thinking skills to determine our own reactions. It is even empowering for children to see us say, “They were wrong but I probably could have done better, too. I can only control me so I have to figure out what to do now or next time.”
- Teach our children that the images they see of endless success on social media are not the whole picture. Young people live a world of smiling social media images depicting perfect families, beautiful people and great achievements. They don’t really understand that what they see isn’t the whole picture. I remember being very young and hearing adults comment that people with great wealth weren’t really happy. I’m not sure if that was true but it was their way of saying that everyone has problems. We need to constantly reinforce that we are seeing only a second in a life on our screens – on the smartphone, tablet, computer and television. Everyone has a whole life and, in that whole picture, everyone experiences success & failure, happiness & sadness, ease & struggle. All of it, the good and bad is common experience and is acceptable. It all will pass and return again. Our children need to know that what they see isn’t the whole story.
- Teach our children that participation isn’t the same as perfection and it doesn’t need to be. A parent recently told me that she enrolled her child is a multitude of activities to expose her to all sorts of experiences. She noticed her daughter getting nervous and seeming overwhelmed. When she asked her daughter why she seemed upset, her daughter said, “I can’t be good at all this.” The mother was distraught. She never said, “You must be great at it all” but that’s what her daughter heard. The mother told me that she has changed how she approaches involvement in activities. She listens more and assumes less. She has stop assuming that her daughter wants it all. She has stopped assuming that her motives are interpreted correctly by her young children. She talks with her children about the fun of new experiences and that trying is different than mastering. They are learning to celebrate attempts rather than results. Participation opens your world but it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s okay not to be on the elite team or the high level travel team or in the spotlight.
Do you send unintentional messages of the expectation of perfection to your children? Probably. We have expectations. As adults, we sometimes still feel pressured by the expectations of our elders. Try to look for those times when your children could be getting that message and make sure they know that trying matters but perfection isn’t real and isn’t expected. Celebrate the efforts to send the message that it is the attempt that broadens their world.
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