As the new school year arrives, so do stress and anxiety for many parents and kids. Going back to school can be exciting and stressful at the same time; change is challenging for most people. The pressures to fit in, to achieve, and to excel seems to grow every year.
Having unrealistic expectations – wanting to be perfect, look perfect, and have everything run smoothly all of the time – is a setup for disappointment, shame, and self-criticism.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl Rogers
As a parent, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of information this time of year about how to be more productive, how to stay organized, and how to get four kids dressed, fed, and out the door without a tantrum. This all sounds lovely, but tantrums happen. Parents oversleep. Kids fail tests. Teachers lose their patience.
Accepting our imperfections and mistakes isn’t an excuse for bad behavior. Self-acceptance is actually a necessary precursor to change. This school year can be more satisfying for everyone when you accept your own and your children’s imperfections.
Instead of expecting perfection, let’s look for progress, growth, effort, and engagement.
How to embrace “progress not perfection” this school year:
You don’t have to make your kid’s life perfect. If he (or she) forgets his homework, you don’t have to run to the rescue. He doesn’t need you to make fancy lunchbox treats like those you see on Pinterest. (I beg you, just don’t do it…unless you have A) more time and money than you know what to do with and B) a great sense of humor.) Yes, they’re super cute if perfectly executed, but lunchbox food doesn’t need to be a work of art. It’s not helpful to model overachieving in this way. I assure you that your child will feel sufficiently nourished and loved with an ordinary ham and cheese sandwich.
Set your expectations based on your values. Tell your child that her social, physical, and emotional health are your top priorities. Pushing your child to be the best at school or sports or music almost always comes at the expense of her peer relationships and mental health. When it comes to grades, let your kiddo know that you’re looking for effort, improvement, open-mindedness, and a positive attitude.
Talk to your child about your own failures and imperfections. Tell him about how you try to accept your saggy stomach and about how you didn’t get into your dream college. Tell him about the business you started that was a total flop. Tell him that you know you yell too much and you’re trying to do better. Your child already struggles with his own mistakes and imperfections. It helps to know he isn’t alone and that these things don’t define him. We are works in progress.
Winning isn’t everything. Most of us were told this as children: “It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.” It’s good advice. Yes, it feels good to win or receive an award or get an “A.” But let’s remember that life isn’t a destination; it’s a journey. Don’t miss out on all the joys of trying new things because you might fail. Encourage your children to try a new sport or after-school activity this year. It might be fun even if they’re not the best on their team.
“Success” is a process dotted with failures. Success, however you define it, is achieved by repeatedly putting in effort, correcting and learning from mistakes. One doesn’t become successful by avoiding failure, but by growing through it. Help your kiddo reframe failures as stepping stones to success.
If you’d like to learn more, I was recently interviewed on the Launching Your Daughter Podcast. Please have a listen to Episode 15: Helping Parents and Teens Embrace Imperfection. The interview is relevant for parents of sons, too.
Wishing you a happily imperfect school year!
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© 2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All Rights Reserved.
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