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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