Perfectionism can be the sneakiest of beasts, bleeding not only the pages of our own stories but marring the chapters of our children and grandchildren’s stories as well.
Not long ago, I had the privilege of visiting a beautiful riding ranch for children with disabilities in northern Arkansas. This equestrian center is set up like a miniature western town, complete with a post office, general store and chapel. Children, and even adults, with a wide range of disabilities come each week for riding lessons and the results are nothing short of miraculous.
Riding, touching and working with the sweet horses at this ranch help heal the emotional and physical wounds brought on by abuse, physical trauma, car accidents and much more. Many of the clients are mentally handicapped children and the owners have even set up days where the kids can show off their newly acquired skills for parents, friends and family to witness.
The owner’s eyes glassed as she told me the next heart-breaking part. “Unfortunately, many of the parents don’t come to those days, or even the regular practices. They are too busy watching their other healthy child compete at her gymnastics meet, or would rather sit through a long baseball practice with their other son than watch their special needs child master their fear, or watch them make strides in learning to walk.”
I frowned. “Why do you think that is?”
She sighed. “I think it’s because parents view their children as a reflection of themselves. When their child hits a home run, it makes the parent look good.”
We’ve all seen the bumper stickers. “Proud parent of an honor roll student”. There’s nothing wrong with an ‘atta boy’ for our kid every now and then, and certainly nothing wrong with cheering our child along when they’ve done well, but how many of us are using our children’s sports, academic achievements, or some other milestone to fill a hole inside ourselves? How many of us happily announce our kids’ honor roll grades on social media, deep-down knowing we will be praised for having such awesome offspring? If their exceptionalism is a reflection of us, then who couldn’t help but praise us as well? And how many of us push our kids for the best grades possible because we can’t face what it might mean to us if they fail?
We’ve all seen the mom screaming at the child who failed to hit that home run in the last inning of the big game, or the dad fuming at his kid who came in second after being in first for the first three laps around the track. The shame they heap upon their little one is shocking…not because the child failed, but because the child made them look bad. Their reaction teaches their offspring one lasting, crushing lesson. That love, at least their love, is conditional.
Perfectionism is buying into the lie that we are not enough. That our kids are not enough. That somehow, by achieving more, gaining recognition and acclaim, we can someone soothe that aching loss inside. It may work for a little while…until the one time you or your loved one doesn’t measure up.
Speaking as someone whose son has sensory processing disorder, I’ve learned (yes, learned) not to care when people stare because my son is clamping his ears and screaming when his overstimulated nervous system has reached its limit. I’ve learned “perfection” is a myth, but love isn’t. I’ve learned the greatest milestones to celebrate are the ones that often go unnoticed by others…when my son is readily accepted by a group of new children, or when he manages to sit through a high school basketball game without crying. Those are personal victories for him. Victories that won’t garner either of us worldwide fame but are huge markers on the path God has given us as we learn about Him and the gift of this life.
Personally, I’d like to see the bumper stickers changed up a bit. Maybe something like, “Proud parent of a child who showed love to the kid who’s been bullying her”, or “Rejoicing because my kid knows Jesus”. Those are the standards that matter. Those are the ones that will change the world.