“Making it perfect vs. being nice” (alternate title: teachable moments and lessons I need to re-learn)

A few weeks ago, the girls pulled the comforter off mom and dad’s bed and used it to play “jump on something squishy” for about half-an-hour.  I have no issue with that.  Actually, I was thrilled they had discovered a fun way to get some energy out on an indoor afternoon.

When they were done jumping, I asked them to put the comforter back on the bed.

Approximately 5 minutes later, from the other room, I heard a genuinely upset E telling S to “stop doing that!”

I walked into the room to see what was going on and realized quickly that both girls were upset.

It turns out that they were both in tears after S had tried to help make the bed, and E had clearly communicated that those efforts were not up to standard.  E was very intent upon having the top comforter lay very smoothly across the mattress.  S was trying to help, but in the process of “helping” had wrinkled a section of the bed E had already fixed.

Bottom line: both girls were doing the job the best way they knew how.  E, at the age of 5, knew how to make it more “perfect” and was insisting that they best way S could help would be to “stop helping”.  S, at the age of 3, was doing the best she could to follow mom’s instructions and was confused and disappointed when her efforts were found lacking by her big sister.

Honestly, it broke my heart:  both my girls doing their best to help me and ending up at odds with each other.  There are about 100 ways I could go with this post from here, but instead of taking those roads, I’ll tell you that I was able to “fix” the immediate situation by praising them both and declaring “clean-up time” over.  S immediately ran off to play.

But as E looked back at the bed, she became upset again.  She had worked hard, and it didn’t look the way she really wanted it to.  (This is the kid who, when asked to clean her room, ignores the piles of papers and dolls on the floor, and begins categorizing her books by type…she is, at this stage of life, very detail oriented…)

So I asked her what I thought was a leading question with an obvious answer:   “E, which do you think is more important, making something perfect or being nice?”

E, without hesitation and with the absolute innocence and honesty of a five year old replied, “making it perfect”.

Her answer initially surprised me (and made me very glad that I had asked the question so we could discuss it), but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the answer to my question is in no way obvious – to E as a 5 year old, and to most of us (myself included) as an adult.  A discussion about this could get complicated:  I want the person who designs my car’s safety features focused on perfection (but also want that person including as many minds as possible in its development, which requires working well with others); I want my kids to set standards and work toward them, but not at the expense of simply being nice.

I write this from the perspective of someone who struggles with perfectionism but places extreme value on just being nice, and (in a long ago life) found a solution in working and living alone.  But, it turns out, I like being around people, so the struggle continued, and looking back over my own life, I am embarrassed at how many times I have probably chosen getting something “perfect” (according to my definition) instead of including others in a way that would have been nicer for them.  I was worse about this before having children.  (I am eternally grateful that my current instincts lead me toward letting them almost do everything, even though it means our brownies are full of eggshells, etc.)  But in spite of that shift brought about by some part of my personality that kicked in when I became a mother (or was beaten out of me by the realities of parenthood!), I have to occasionally have to remind myself that it is more important to include and celebrate people’s contributions than to have things be “perfect”. (Prime example:  I recently insisted that we lay the Halloween lights on top of the bushes so people driving by the house could see them at night, instead of allowing E to push them inside the bush like she wanted, so that they would be in the dark shade that makes their light visible when E peers into the bushes at them in the middle of the bright, sunny day… Well, several days later I had to admit to E that I had made a mistake when I imposed my own idea on what I had identified as “our project” and encouraged her to share her vision again.  Then I helped her push them all back into the bush so we could admire them at midday in their shady surroundings.  Honestly – they are pumpkin lights, and the kids are the one we bought them for anyway; not the random people who drive down our street at 9pm!)

Anyway, back to the original story . . .  in that moment, as E and I looked at the bedspread, I had to tell her that my question (“perfect or nice”) was a hard one, but that – most of the time –  the right answer is that is much more important to be nice than make something “perfect”.

I also had to tell her something that I have had to learn the hard way: that most things are never going to be completely perfect anyway.  We do the best we can, and then we have to let it go.

I don’t think E understood at first, as she kept insisting that she was trying to make the bed perfect, for me.  She was trying to do something nice, for me.  So I told her I didn’t need her, or the bed, to be perfect.  But our whole family needed her to be nice.  This included being nice to herself…giving herself credit for good efforts even when things didn’t turn out exactly right.

At that point, I showed her something that I had initially hesitated to mention.  The comforter of the bed was completely smooth, but unwittingly, she had put it on sideways.  I told her that even though I noticed that earlier, I hadn’t planned to say anything about it because I was so proud of her “happy helper” attitude and her “best efforts”, that it didn’t matter to me that the bedspread was sideways.  I had made the decision to be nice – to celebrate her efforts and make sure she felt good about her contribution, instead of shifting the bedspread around to make it “perfect”.

I asked her how she would have felt if – after all of her hard work – I had come in and told her she needed to stop helping because she couldn’t do it exactly right.

She told me that she would have been upset, so I immediately reminded her that I had not done that.  I had hugged her for a job well done.  In our house, if you do your best while being nice and having a good attitude, then you’ve done the job right.

I’m not sure how much of the conversation she’ll remember, but at least it has given us a foundation and the language to address issues if they continue to arise.  It is probably more controversial than I even realize (I took a break from a writing a few moments ago to flip through a magazine, and the first article I read referenced the value of high standards as its very successful businessman/author unabashedly revealed he had learned that he needed to be a “perfectionist” to succeed.   Despite that perspective, we are choosing a different path.  I know my daughter – sweet, loving, eternally nice E, who has a tendency to want to do things “right”, benefits from hearing me say that (1) things don’t need to perfect, especially if getting them way creates internal or external angst, (2) that she is “right” with me, no matter what.

So in our house, we are delivering the following message: (a) do your best, (b) decide to be happy in the midst of imperfections, and (c) prioritize being nice.

P.S.  I am getting another chance to practice this tomorrow, as we are collecting leaves to wax and hang up as decorations in our house, and I am taking the advice of this author to keep my mouth shut as the kids collect the leaves, even if it means my house is covered in waxy dried up brown leaves for the next two weeks!  (Her words as she gives instructions for the activity: “go on a nature walk, find the most beautiful, colorful, perfect leaves. OR just zip your mouth, let the kids pick up the ones they want, no matter what they look like…there is no better way to ruin a creative endeavor with your kids than by being bossy and controlling!”)  Amen, mama!  and thank you for the reminder as we go into what should be a very fun day waxing leaves!

P.P.S. In case this post leaves anyone thinking otherwise, I want to emphasize that E might be the most joyful, nicest, most pure of heart kid that I know.  Her intuitive, sensitive, and loving nature also make her one of the best big sisters in the world.  She only struggles with “nice” when it comes into conflict with her people-pleasing nature (i.e. seeing someone wrinkle the bed that mom asked her to make).  And yes, I do realize that having a kid like that makes me about the most lucky, blessed mother in the world.  E, if you read this someday, I hope the idea that your mama wants you to be nice to yourself (by letting go of some perfectionist angst while still holding onto whatever standards you set for yourself) brings you comfort and peace.  You’ve already got love in spades!

P.P.P.S.  So that people don’t think I am the “Keeper of the Perfect Bedspread” that E picked up on somehow, can I say that (for whatever reason and much to the chagrin of my husband) my perfectionism has never taken the form of needing to keep a perfect house.  The bed I referenced might actually be made 1 out of every 3 days, and our house is in general disarray.  For better or worse, my perfectionist nature tends to pop up when I am asked to submit something professionally or when I am attempting to accomplish certain types of tasks.  For an example, you can click here.  (Note: my favorite part of that post is the mention of how having kids made me “change my definition of perfect”…)

P.P.P.P.S.  I think this absolutely varies according to kid.  The lesson was important for E, but other kids might need the opposite lesson (i.e. encouraged to pay more attention to detail).  E works very hard to get things “right” and can be devastated when it doesn’t turn out that way.  At this age, she needs to hear that fun, nice processes are more important than perfection.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Only a perfectionist would have this many post-scripts.  I promise I’m done now, but can you tell I am anxious about this particular post?!

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5 responses to ““Making it perfect vs. being nice” (alternate title: teachable moments and lessons I need to re-learn)

  1. Darlene Traffanstedt

    Hey Sweet Friend!
    God is so good! I haven’t taken the time to read your blog in a long time but I have had you guys on my mind lately and wanted to know what was going on. God knew that I needed to read your post! From one perfectionist to another, I really needed to hear this story. We love and miss you guys so much. Would love to see you sometime soon.
    DHT

  2. I love how well you understand both your girls. I can’t wait to really get to know T!

  3. We miss you too D! I haven’t been in your next of the woods in over 2 years…I can’t believe it’s been that long. And yes, God is good. I actually wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, and had even told another friend that for some reason I felt like I needed to wait to post it, so I saved it in the drafts folder for a while. Then (I guess right before you logged on), I added one “P.S.” to it and published it. I am glad the timing was good for you, and am so glad to hear from you. I hope your crew is doing well and I am determined to travel south sometime this year, so we’ll keep you posted on those plans. Love you; miss you!

  4. Love how much you understand me, A! And my girls! And you know T better than you think. He’s a snuggler like you, so you will get him intuitively. Also, he is currently obsessed with… (among other things like cars and trains)… currently obsessed with books and pictures. I can just picture you two snuggled up reading and looking at albums together!

  5. I’m very impressed with how you can take these seemingly trivial situations and turn them into such great learning experiences for your girls. These are the type of things most people would think of after reflection and after the teachable moment has passed (if ever at all). Sort of like when you think of a great comeback after the guy who insulted you has left the room.

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