When I was a boy, back in the Early Jurassic, someone gave me a game called Perfection. Maybe you played it in a more recent epoch; Hasbro, Inc. still sells it today. Its concept was simple – you had sixty seconds to place, by hand, twenty-five assorted, small shapes into matching holes on a tray. If you finished within the allotted time, you hit the switch to stop the timer. But if you didn’t finish in time, the whole tray suddenly SLAMMED upward with a BANG, ejecting the pieces out of their spaces. It required “perfection” in that you had to get all twenty-five pieces in their proper places in time. If you only had twenty-four, the timer would still go off, the tray would still explode, and you would lose. Perfection – the game – was an all-or-nothing proposition.
The game is aptly named. It mirrors the drive for perfection in life – also an all-or-nothing proposition. When time is up, whether it’s due to a deadline or a meeting time, our obsession with having things “just so” unhinges us, hurling the pieces of our internal world around, leaving us feeling stressed out, fearful, and even devastated. Such perfectionism drives so many of our issues, disorders, and addictions. Many of us learned our perfectionism in childhood, as we were told in spoken and unspoken ways that making mistakes meant forfeiting love.
Many of us deeply want to spare our children from perfection-obsession and the consequent unhealthiness that has shackled us. But we may not know how. What can we do to help our kids avoid the perfectionism trap? Or to say it positively, what can we do to foster their sense that they are unconditionally loved? Here are just a few of the things my wife and I try to be mindful of, in order to help our girls experience our unconditional love:
- We say it often. We tell our daughters “I love you” every day, but we often say “I always love you.” Whenever our daughters apologize, we reply with “I forgive you – and I always love you.” We want them to know that making a mistake does not lessen our love for them.
- We say it with a hug. Children need to not only know intellectually that they are loved without condition, but they need to feel it, too. There are few things that help little kids feel more loved than a warm, snug embrace from Mom or Dad.
- We try to help them balance achievement with effort. We celebrate their achievements, but we also try not to overemphasize good results. We also praise their diligent efforts, a sporting attitude when they don’t win, and their improvement and growth from one step of competence to the next.
While the long-term effects remain to be seen, we hope these things help our girls better grasp that our love is not based on their perfect behavior or performance. Research shows that feeling our love as unconditional will later help them to feel God’s love as unconditional, too. And I doubt there’s anything more freeing from life’s game of perfection than that.