When I was a boy, I always thought that my dad expected me to be perfect. Don’t get me wrong; he never actually came out and said that’s what he expected – it was just a sense that I had. Sometimes the message was subtle. I would come home from school with a B, having worked very hard to get it, only to have my dad question me about what I had missed and why I had missed it, the obvious inference being that I could and should have done better.
Other times, the message was not so subtle. I remember missing shots at a key moment in a bowling tournament and turning around to see my dad with a look of disbelief, what I interpreted as obvious disappointment, or, in some cases, disgust on his face, even though the missed shot may have meant that I finished second or third, instead of first, in a particular tournament. I have similar memories of striking out (which, as previously discussed, I did quite often!) or of making errors “at the wrong time” in little league baseball games and of missing crucial shots in high school and other golf tournaments.
Though the settings may have been different, however, the feelings they elicited were always the same – no matter how well I did or how hard I tried, if, in the end, I wasn’t perfect, I felt like my dad was disappointed in me, that I somehow not only let myself down, but I had let him down as well, and it hurt. Often, it hurt a lot because I was no different from most other kids – I hungered for my parents’ approval, particularly my dad’s. I wanted him to be proud of me. Over time, the inevitable happened: I insisted on perfection in everything I did, and I never seemed to be satisfied with anything less. I became intolerant of my own and others’ mistakes and shortcomings. I developed a really bad temper and a really bad attitude whenever I competed at anything and lost. I also struggled to acknowledge and congratulate others on their accomplishments and successes, even when they clearly deserved and earned my and others’ praise. And then I grew to hate that part of me.
As I grew older (much older, in fact), I began to understand that there was no way I could ever live up to my dad’s expectations of me or the expectations I had begun to place on myself, because I never was, am not, and never will be perfect. I also learned that my dad only wanted me to be the best I could be at the things I chose to do and, more importantly, that he probably never realized that the way he chose (or, more likely, had learned from his own upbringing) to try and accomplish that goal (i.e., by insisting on perfection rather than acknowledging and encouraging my small victories) was hurtful. Finally, I learned that there is much to be gained from not being perfect, from losing, and from being vulnerable just like even the most accomplished of people, performers and athletes are from time to time. It’s all part of the journey, and at the end of the day, these are the experiences from which we can grow and become stronger.
And then God blessed me with children of my own, and I promised myself that things would be different for them, that I would always strive to be encouraging, that wherever possible, I would avoid unwarranted spoken or unspoken criticism, that I would steadfastly avoid setting standards for them that were unrealistic or unattainable, that I would teach them the importance of always being prepared and striving to do their best without making them feel that I (or anyone else) expected them to be perfect or that anything less than victory or complete success meant that they had failed, or worse yet, would result in my thinking any less of them. I tried to stay true to that promise as they were growing up, but knowing how much I still tended to expect of myself and others, often in their presence, leaves me wondering whether sometimes they felt the same way I did as a child. I’m sure that they did and that scares me – more than a little.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in wanting (and encouraging) children, including my own, to strive to do well and make the most of their gifts. But I also believe it’s imperative that they understand and experience the sense of joy, satisfaction, pride, and accomplishment that comes from knowing they’ve tried their best, even though, on a given day, their best may not be good enough to achieve the result they had hoped for or thought they deserved. Moreover, I think it’s critical that they understand that they are not perfect and, as importantly, that perfection is not a parental expectation. In fact, it’s imperative to let them know that, contrary to allure of Madison Avenue’s marketing efforts, perfection is not attainable. That message and understanding necessarily begins with us and our willingness, as the “grown-ups” in the mix, to readily acknowledge our own weaknesses and shortcomings and to properly and lovingly address theirs.