Improvement vs Perfection: Problems Associate with Expecting Student Perfection
Perfection is a dangerous concept to aim for or claim. Perfection has a ceiling. It suggests we reach a certain point and then we’re done. But we’re never truly done. Our familiarisation with predictable, identical, and consistent goods has influenced our expectations of ourselves, of others, and of children. We’ve become conditioned to believe that, just like a product from the assembly line, humans should in some way be perfect. Studies over many years highlight the debilitating nature of perfection, which drives turmoil and mental distortions. The quest for perfection is linked to burnout, anxiety, stress and depression.
When perfection is the expectation for children, children can become overwhelmed by dread and imprisoned by pressure. Typically they will not yet have the self-awareness to recognize and the vocabulary to verbalize the crippling demands of perfection, and so it is likely to play out through procrastination, rebellion and other unhelpful behaviors. Improvement, however, is a concept everyone can aim for and claim. Improvement is achievable. It has no ceiling, giving rise to the notion that anything is possible.
Improvement accepts that there will be mistakes and setbacks along the way. A child learning to walk, for example, will fall over again and again until one day, voila! But it doesn’t stop there. Building upon that improvement, the child will learn to change direction, to run, to jump; to sprint short distances, to endure long distances; to leap high, and to leap long. And in learning these skills, a child will persistently make mistakes and experience failure and setbacks. It will not be a perfect journey, but every attempt will ultimately lead to further improvement.
Improvement recognizes there are stops and starts. It values reflection and adopts a realistic measure of self-compassion through the knowledge that mistakes and setbacks are essential to the learning and improvement process. In fact, self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and depression link, making way for the growth mindset and joy that are fostered through the hunger for improvement.
When improvement – as opposed to perfection – is the expectation, self-motivation tends to be high. Children willingly grapple with setbacks, confident that their toil will ultimately result in improvement. And, when the improvement becomes evident, they experience a deep sense of accomplishment. This sense of accomplishment leads to children flourishing in self-belief, growing in emotional fortitude and resilience, and developing the tenacity to achieve the seemingly impossible. Setbacks become minor bumps in the road that serves only to increase their determination and spur them on further. They compete against themselves to do better than last time. Their hunger for improvement has been ignited, and this is a flame we don’t want to extinguish.
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