Sunday, October 21, 2012

Set High Expectations, But Be Prepared for Failure

My mother had very high standards for me when I was growing up. She expected all A’s out of me, and failure was not something that was tolerated. If I brought home a 90, she wanted to know why it wasn't a 95. If I brought home a 95, she wanted to know why it wasn't a 100. Her focus was all on results, and it left me feeling like I could never, ever please her. I felt like I had to be perfect all the time.

This, coupled with the fact that in our dysfunctional home I had somehow gotten the idea that if I could just be perfect enough I could make our broken family whole again, drove me to perfectionism. I was very hard on myself, seeing only the flaws in everything I did. I was even harder on everyone else, unforgiving of their failures because I couldn't forgive my own.

My failures were so painful to me that I would deny the reality of them, avoiding responsibility for my own mistakes and placing blame on others. It made it almost impossible to form a relationship with me. I was miserable, and I was making everyone else around me miserable, too. My son became so afraid of failure that he wouldn't even try anything new for fear he wouldn't succeed. This was in part because he knew how I felt about failure.

Fortunately for me and for my son, as I grew in my Catholic faith I came to realize that I had it all wrong. I was trying to be what I could not be – perfect on my own and all at once. I was striving to do it without help, and it was driving me and everyone else around me, crazy. Since then, I have learned to take a much more healthy view of perfection. The result is a healthier, happier me; a healthier, happier home; and a healthier, happier child.

Setting High Standards

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” – Matthew 5:48

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church holds the highest standards possible for all of her children. She wants them to be like their Father in heaven, perfect in love. Every instruction she lays out for them, every dogma she teaches, every tradition she hands down, every sacrament and sacramental is all geared toward helping her children attain such a lofty and ambitious goal.

Your children want and need you to expect great things of them. They want and need you to believe that they are capable of better things than what they have done in the past, and even of better things than they believe themselves capable of doing. Setting high expectations for them sends the message that you believe they are capable of greatness, and that you don’t want them to settle for less than the very best that they are capable of producing.

Children invariably strive to live up to their parent’s highest expectation of them. Although society may tell you that teens do not care about their parent’s opinions, but are more concerned about the opinions of their peers, this is not at all true. Walk into any high school cafeteria or area where teens are talking. Take a seat and listen closely to what’s being said. 99% of their conversations with one another are about what their parents did or said, how their parents handled situations that came up, and what their parents think about things. Never discount the importance of you, as a parent, setting high expectations for your children.

Encouragement is the Key

Along with high standards, the Catholic Church provides plenty of encouragement to her children. She is continually affirming them in their basic goodness, in their ability to love, and in their ability to resist temptation. During every daily and Sunday Mass, her children are lifted up and their Father’s love for them is revealed as His willingness to sacrifice everything for their sake is made present once again.

If you set high standards, it is important that those high standards are accompanied by plenty of encouragement. Your child will need to be continually affirmed in your belief that they are good, that they are able to do what you expect of them, and that they can battle temptation and win. They will also need you to continually affirm your love for them, and your willingness to do whatever it takes to help them succeed.

Examples to Model

While it is important to set high expectations and to encourage our children to strive toward these high expectations, it is important for them to know that we do not expect them to do it all by themselves. The Catholic Church provides thousands of examples for her children of men and women who have been on the same journey they are on and who have been successful in achieving the goals that you desire them to achieve. She gives her children the Bible, which is essentially a love letter from God to His children. In the Bible we find stories of people who may have failed to live up to God’s high expectations at times, but whose efforts were successful in the end.

The Church also provides her children thousands of Saints, sisters and brothers in the faith, whose lives are held up as examples of how to succeed in loving others perfectly. These Saints, because they come from all walks of life and from all backgrounds, are often more accessible to the Church’s children than Biblical figures like Moses, David, Peter, and even Paul. They are more recent, more modern, and their struggles therefore resonate more profoundly with those who face today’s temptations and struggles to love.

In the examples that the Church holds up, her children can see that perfection is both a destination and a journey. Human beings simply cannot achieve perfection in love without many, many times of falling down and many, many failures in between. However, in studying the Bible and the lives of the Saints we see that the failures are not a reason to give up. They are not a reason to abandon our lofty goals and high expectations. We see that the only way to accomplish the goal is to persevere, to keep trying, and to learn from our failures.

Dealing with Failure

How we handle our children’s failures to live up to our expectations sets the tone for whether or not they are willing to continue trying. If we are too harsh with failure, we risk discouraging them to the point where they refuse to try because they feel they can never succeed. They may be unwilling to admit to failures or to bring their failures to us for fear that we will stop loving them or that we will think less of them for the failures. Worse, we may drive them to the point of despair, feeling that they are hopeless and causing them to view themselves as worthless because of their failures.

The Catholic Church knows very well that failure is difficult to take, and harder still to admit. However, she understands that when we fail it is of the utmost importance that we examine those failures and figure out what we did wrong so that we can improve. Failure, in fact, is not an obstacle to success in achieving high standards – it is an important part of it. We often learn more from a single failure than we do from a thousand successes.

The Church, while expecting 100% compliance with her laws and precepts, understands that just as a toddler learning to walk falls many times before getting it down well enough to run her children are going to fail. For this reason, she encourages her children to engage in a nightly examination of their conscience, to see what they did well and where they fell. She also encourages them to regularly confess their sins, presenting their failures to her in trust that she will help them to do better.

Learning From Failure

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. – James 5:16

When her children fail, the Catholic Church encourages them to come straight to her arms and admit to the failure. Confessing sins is not for the purpose of embarrassing us or ridiculing us, but to help us identify what it was that caused us to stumble the last time so that we can avoid it the next. During confession, the priest acts in the person of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us better understand why we failed to achieve perfection so that we can grow closer to it the next time.

The same thing is true as a parent. While setting high expectations is important, just as important for growth is that you encourage your children to come to you when they fail, to admit their failure, and to seek guidance in improving. It is important that your child be able to admit to failure and not to place blame on others for it. This is a first step in taking personal responsibility for their lives and for being able to make the connection between choices they make and the direction their life goes.

Second, examining failures helps them to better understand their own weaknesses – what people, things, or places put them in a position where they are more likely to fail. If they begin to see, for example, that video games are a weakness for them and that playing these is an obstacle to studying and thus to succeeding, they can be encouraged to avoid those during the week so that they may better focus on their studies.

Another purpose of routinely examining failures is that it helps them to spot improvements. As a Catholic, there have been many sins that I had to confess several times over before I was ready to really move past that sin. Your children will be like this too, needing help and guidance many times before they are ready to move past that particular stumbling block to make progress on the road to success. It is important that each time they come to you with a failure, you not judge the failure but seek to help them understand why they failed and how they can improve the next time. When they are tempted to become discouraged, actively remind them of the past failures and to see how many things they have overcome along the way.


While it is important to have high expectations for our children, it is equally important to not only accept that they will fail in their efforts many times before succeeding but to be gentle with them and to use these failures as opportunities to learn more about themselves so they can see how to succeed in the future.  They need encouragement from you and plenty of examples of other people who have done what they are trying to do now. Most of all, they need you to believe in them enough to have these expectations.

Your Turn

I hope you have enjoyed reading this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just joining us, you can find the other chapters and the introduction by following the link above.  I hope you will join us tomorrow for the next chapter, Keep the Door Open.

I appreciate all feedback on my writing. Whether you like it, love it, hate it, agree with it, or disagree, I would love to know what your thoughts are. Please leave a comment below and let me know :)

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