The Expectation of Perfection

Parent-teacher conferences strike fear in the hearts of parents and children every quarter. Our family is no different. With a fourth- and second-grader in the house, my wife and I have the privilege of sitting in tiny chairs at tiny tables while discussing how our kids are doing academically and socially.

After our last round of conferences, where one of the teachers literally squealed with delight over how much she loves our daughter, we came home to give the kids their great reports. In the middle of all of the glowing information her teacher shared with us, she also mentioned a two-part question on an assessment that Piper had missed.

It was an incredibly minor mistake, but as I tucked her in that night, Piper asked if I had seen the missed answer. When I told her that I had, she began to get emotional and talk about how frustrated she was that the answer was wrong. Not only was she upset about that wrong answer, she also mentioned “all of those answers got wrong in first grade.”

Unbeknownst to me, she had been silently keeping track of every answer she’d ever gotten wrong. The burden of carrying these mistakes around in her mind and in her emotions was overwhelming her.

You’re probably not still carrying around mistakes you made on first-grade tests, but chances are you’re planning on a mistake-free day today .

Why do we do that? We would never tell a child that we expect everything they do to be without any errors at all. We wouldn’t tell our coworkers that anything short of absolute total perfection won’t be tolerated (or at least, we shouldn’t).

So why do we expect perfection from ourselves? What is it that makes us hypersensitive to mistakes?

Are you ready for this? It’s not an easy answer.

It’s the fear of being perceived as weak or less than others.

Of course I don’t want to be perceived as weak. I want you to think that all my ducks are in a row and that my processes are airtight. I want you to know that I am in control of everything, even when I’m not.

Have you ever watched somebody own a mistake, though? Did it make you think of them as weak? Probably not.

It’s usually just the opposite. When we watch someone take ownership of the rights and the wrongs, we tend to view them as brave. We believe them to be strong and confident. We correctly see vulnerability in others as courageous, while incorrectly viewing it as weakness in ourselves. But we don’t have to.

Today is the day to stop expecting to get every answer right and embrace the goodness of our present, imperfect reality.