Around the age of 5 or 6 years old, about the time we begin to put them into schools, this changes. Suddenly, it isn't the effort they make that pleases us – it’s the result. We don’t look at the progress they've made, we look at the grade. We don’t see the work they did to try and get that grade, just the grade. This is when children stop being eager to learn and try new things.
I have worked with many children over the years. The hardest part about teaching them anything new by the time they reach 5th and 6th grade is getting them to try. Their fear of failure, of not being able to produce the results they think I want, is a greater setback to them than anything else. A project that should take me two class periods to do if the children were willing to give it a try takes three or even four class periods because I have to first coax them into trying.
The second biggest obstacle to teaching those children anything new is getting them to keep going when they make mistakes. They are so focused on results – because that’s what’s been drilled into their heads over the years – that they don’t see progress, they see failure. The failures make them feel like a failure and they are quick to quit and give up. Only through continuous encouragement and pointing out the progress they've made am I ever able to get them to learn something new, even when that something new is a relatively easy craft project.
“By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. ‘This is a remote place,’ they said, ‘and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’
But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat.’
They said to him, ‘That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?’
‘How many loaves do you have?’ he asked. ‘Go and see.’
When they found out, they said, ‘Five—and two fish.’
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.” – Mark 6:35-44
This passage from Scripture shows us Jesus giving the disciples an impossible command – a command to perfection. He tells them that he wants them to feed a group that included 5000 men and their families. The disciples do their very best to obey him. They gather everything that they have with them, and they fall horribly short of the goal. The best they can do is five loaves and two fish. Jesus doesn't scold them or get angry with them or reject what they bring him. Instead, He takes what they offer Him and HE produces the results. He transforms their imperfections into perfections.
In this Scripture passage, the Catholic Church shows her children exactly how she wants them to respond to God’s call. She wants them to give their very best efforts. She knows that, like the disciples, their best efforts are going to come up short. However, she teaches them that it isn't their job to produce results, that’s God’s job. Their job is to put in their very best effort.
The reality is that if the child is continuing to make efforts and continuing to make progress, they will eventually attain the results we want them to attain. However, if we focus solely on the results the message they hear is that results are all that matter and they become discouraged when the results that they are currently capable of producing aren't up to our demands. Focusing on efforts and progress takes the pressure off of a child and allows them to grow into the perfection we desire.
Perfectionism is a common psychological problem among many children and adults today. It is increasing rapidly as perfectionist parents pass on their perfectionism to their children, and nearly all of it stems from valuing the results rather than the effort as measured by the progress made toward achieving those results. It damages their work and family lives. They are usually very difficult people to love and very difficult people to work with because their expectations are so high that they are just unreasonable.
Like most perfectionists, I inherited mine from my mother just like she inherited hers from her mother. When my mom was growing up, mistakes such as knocking over a glass of milk or spilling something on the floor were met with insults and disgust. There was no acknowledgement of her effort to try and take care of herself, no reassurance that she could master it if she kept trying. Over time, my mom took that message and applied it to everything in her life. She would start projects but the minute she encountered serious obstacles or made mistakes she would give up. Her closets were full of half-finished projects in part because she could never make them perfect.
She improved upon the model she’d been given as a parent and tried to be easier on me and my siblings. She didn't make a big fuss over spilled milk, and she was quick to tell me that mistakes were normal and part of life. However, when it came to school or chores, the message was loud and clear. It was all about results. It didn't matter if you tried hard, or if you learned anything. It only mattered what grade you received or whether or not the chore was done to perfection. As a first grader, that message was so ingrained into me that when I received an 89 on a math test, I burst into tears. The teacher couldn't understand why I was crying. I told her, “I’m just devastated. My parents are going to kill me”. She was amazed that a first grade child was using the word devastated correctly in a sentence. She was also sure that I was wrong, but I had listened to all the times my mother had berated my sister for getting less than an A. I knew this wouldn't be acceptable at home, and I also knew I’d done my best.
As an adult, I was less afraid to try new things and more apt to finish than my mother. I would overlook some of my mistakes or find ways to work around them in my projects. However, I was not a nice person to be around. My perfectionism drove me to blaming the people around me for my failures because they were too painful for me to acknowledge and own. It drove me to lying to cover up my mistakes so I didn't have to admit to them. It led me to be impatient with the faults and failings of others, and the sum result of it all was that I just wasn't a very nice person to be around at any time.
It wasn't until I came back to the Church as an adult and began to really live out my faith that I began to correct my perfectionism, but not before I had ingrained a fear of failure that was so made him afraid to try new things. Fortunately, the Church has helped the both of us to overcome this. I understand now that God doesn't count how many times I fail. He counts how many times I fail to get back up and try again. I have begun to encourage my son to look at his progress and measure himself by the effort rather than by the result. Four years later, and our whole family is so much better for it.
Valuing the effort isn't about letting go of the standards you have for your children or excusing them from giving their very best effort. It's about prizing the effort and the progress made because it represents steps on the path toward achieving the goals and accomplishing the standards. I hope you've enjoyed this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just finding this series, you can read the introduction and earlier chapters by following the link above. I hope you will join us tomorrow for Chapter 33: Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude.
Thank you for taking the time to read this chapter. Please feel free to leave a comment below and let me know what you thought, and what your experiences or questions are on this topic.