Why kids must learn “perfection” is overrated

Did my daughter need to be “perfect”? I try to remember that everyone—adults and children—have good days and bad days. We can’t be perfect all the time.

Super-duper citizen. Student of the Week. Honor graduate. Valedictorian.

The list of superlatives starts in kindergarten, with rewards based on behavior. If your child is “good” all week, he or she might receive a badge, sticker, or trip to the treasure box.

For my two sons, being “good” every day of the week was virtually impossible. Between listening attentively, keeping their hands and feet to themselves, cooperating with teachers, and sharing with others… It was just too hard. By late Tuesday or Wednesday, my sons had usually lost a tack or gone from green to yellow—headed towards the dreaded red on the class chart. Maybe they could be good for one day, but a whole week? Yikes.

And then there was Beth, my daughter. The middle child, yes—but also a female, a people pleaser, and someone who just always obeyed the rules.

Although it usually took a few months for my sons to learn the ropes of being “good” all week and not lose a tack, Beth would joyfully greet me after school on Fridays, beaming and wearing a Super-Duper Citizen badge. She continued to win the award every single week.

As the school year progressed, I actually began to worry about my daughter. What kind of values were we encouraging by rewarding week after week of “perfect” behavior? That’s not realistic for any child—and it certainly wouldn’t help Beth learn to deal with the disappointments and challenges of life.

But what was I supposed to do? Stop my child from being “perfect” all the time? Encourage her to break the rules?

I’m a mom and a teacher. I don’t characterize any of my students as “good” or “bad.” I honestly believe all children can succeed. Well-behaved kids are always a joy to teach, but helping struggling kids succeed is an intangible reward of teaching.

Most importantly, I try to remember that everyone—adults and children—have good days and bad days. We can’t be perfect all the time.

As I grew concerned about Beth’s weekly Super-Duper Citizen badge, I decided to bring it up at the first parent-teacher conference. The teacher and her assistant found my worries a bit unusual—but they also understood my point.

Turns out, I didn’t have to worry about my daughter’s perfect streak for too long. One day, on the way in from recess, Beth was feeling particularly energetic—so she turned a cartwheel in the hall, like any normal kid.

Mrs. Bliss, the teacher assistant, saw her star pupil’s renegade act. When they returned to the classroom, Beth lost her first tack. In one cartwheel, she had officially lost her opportunity to win a Super-Duper Citizen badge that week.

The result? I think my daughter was relieved (I know I was). When Beth got home that day, she told me the news.

I responded, “You shouldn’t turn cartwheels inside the school. But we all make mistakes.” I tried to gently admonish my daughter—but inside, I was smiling.

I had spent so much time worrying when Beth would take her first misstep. But my daughter discovered on her own that perfection is overrated. (Actually, I think Beth’s cartwheel was her way of rocking the system a bit so that she didn’t have to be perfect.)

Years later, Beth graduated as salutatorian of her high school class. Turns out she slipped in the rankings during her last semester because she chose to be the yearbook editor. Instead of taking an honors course that could have made her valedictorian, she decided to pursue a class that would let her reflect on the four years of her high school experience.

I think my daughter made a great choice. In fact, I felt like turning a cartwheel myself when she told me—because it meant she really understood her priorities in life. For Beth, being perfect was no longer one of them.

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  • JasonParker


    This is a great story! Appreciate the narrative and the underlying point. Often wondered if these types of “stars of the week” or “super-duper citizen” awards might have a downside. You’ve suggested that there may well be a reason to break the mold of the “perfect” student. 

    • NancyGardner

      Redefining “perfect”

      I think we need to break the mold because “perfect” is hard to define.  Often, taking a risk results in a greater discovery.  I also think parents sometimes put unhealthy and unrealistic pressures on kids.  Rewarding positive behaviors and work is certainly key to engaging students and helping them want to learn and succeed, but we have to be careful with our messages.

  • BillIvey

    Downside to Awards

    I’m totally an Alfie Kohn supporter on internal and external motivation, and I am particularly passionate about the issue since I work in a girls school and believe (and have research to support it) that our culture relentlessly focuses girls on responding to external needs. I do grant both that some girls might naturally be that way anyway and that some girls are much less affected by that pressure than others.

    So we have no awards of any sort in our middle school program. We work pretty hard to focus the girls within, and just as letter grades (which we’ve replaced with standards-based assessment) were undermining that work, so too would awards. Given, too, the huge developmental differences between middle schoolers and their vulnerability at this age, awards, we believe, could set up some unhealthy dynamics.

    I shared this piece out on Twitter because I want lots of people to see it. Beth sounds delightful, just the kind of person we want our students to be – in no small part because she is indeed her own person. Sounds like you were an incredibly important part of enabling that to happen.

    • NancyGardner

      “I’m so proud of you”

      Thanks for your comments, Bill.  Sounds as if your school culture is sensitive to these issues—so thanks for sharing.

       Once I realized Beth was such a “people pleaser”, I made it a point to say to her “I am proud of you, but you should be proud of yourself.”   I didn’t want her to grow up believing that validation from others was crucial to her personal happiness.  It was a subtle but significant change in the way I responded to her successes.  I am not a psychologist, but I am always amazed at how powerful our words and attitudes can affect our children and our students.  


  • DaveOrphal

    Great Story

    I’ve learned some things about perfection from my 12-Step Program:

    1. I am not perfect

    2. Trying to be perfect was a racket – for me, it was an opportunity to mentally flay myself when I eventually slipped and fell.

    3. Trying to be perfect is a little bit blasphemous.  Only my Higher Power, whom I call “God” is perfect.  Worrying about perfection and demanding perfection from myself was essentially demanding that I be God.

    4. Trying to be perfect robbed me of one of life’s important skills – making amends.  

    Today, when I am wrong, I have the opportunity to apologize and make right whatever I did.

    I’m a happier person, being imperfect.

    • NancyGardner

      Thank you

      This is a brave post, Dave.  Thanks for your personal reflections and thoughts.

  • BenOwens

    Reminds me of…

    This post reminds me so much of a book I am currently reading: “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz, a somewhat controversial look at how we are stifling true creativity and independent passion in students – often at a very early age and not letting up until after college (if then) – all for the sake of achieving the perfect college, the perfect career, the perfect whatever. 

    This relentless focus on “perfection” can leave students to think that failure is never allowed, thus inhibiting their desire to try new things, push the limits, and perhaps even live the life they really want to live.

    While it is great to encourage our students to live up to their true potential, it is also important that we encourage and support them to do the things that they love – even if they do not do them perfectly.

  • NancyGardner

    Love the title
    Thanks for the post, Ben. Although I haven’t read the book you reference, the title says it all. Are we teaching kids to be excellent sheep who follow the prescriptive path of perfection? Are they all following that path like lambs to the slaughter?

    Yikes–we must be aware of how this focus and pattern stifles individuals and creative minds. Let’s keep the passion alive!

    Just began to think of a wolf in sheep’s clothing turning a cartwheel!

  • susanmenkel

    Qualifying “bad” behavior

    I think it’s more important to talk about making mistakes with our students. I’m not saying celebrate mistakes. I’m saying focus on dealing with mistakes rather than celebrate a goal that is unattainable for many. Show them that teachers make mistakes. Parents and children make mistakes. Essentially, everyone messes up sometimes. Isn’t it more important to focus on learning from the mistakes than to avoid them as all? 

    In my classroom, we call it “stopping the insanity”. The definition of insanity is making the same mistake over and over again and expecting different results. We need to encourage them to learn from mistakes, not keep from making them altogether. 

  • Nancy Gardner

    Honest humans

    Susan–absolutely.  Allow them (our students and our children) to see we make mistakes, and how we learn from those errors.  Admit it, adjust, recover, and move on to avoid future ones.  I doubt that Beth turned cartwheels again in the hall, but she did learn that it's okay to mess up sometimes!