Parenting Perfectionists

Teacher’s pet. The phrase conjures images and connotations in everyone. Some hate the people-pleasing, homework-doing, curve-breaking teacher’s pet. Some were the teacher’s pet. I was always the latter. I mean, I was pen pals for years with my nun/teacher from 1st grade, Sister Joan. Who is pen pals with their teacher nun? People like me.

Perfect attendance, straight A’s, top of the chart. I was familiar with this territory from an early age. One incident haunted me as a child, a glaring breach in the wall of my perfection, a dark blemish on the masterpiece of my people-pleasing and performance-oriented perfection.

The incident happened when I was a bow-wearing student in Sister Joan’s class (the year that led to our pen-palship). Picture a particularly rosy-cheeked, uniformed, quiet little girl in the school yard lining up for the day to begin. Now picture the turmoil that happens in that little girl’s heart and stomach when her handsome, year-older-than-her neighbor and heart throb Matty Adams comes up to her and tells her she should stick up her middle finger at the beloved Sister Joan. “But what does that mean? It doesn’t seem right,” says the little girl. “It’s what the cool kids do, you should do it,” says Matty with a sparkle in his dreamy eyes.

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That was the backstory to the time I flipped off my nun. Yep, that’s right. When I fail, I fail big. She saw it and was as horrified as you might imagine any God-respecting nun to be. She called me outside into the yellow cinderblock hallway and asked me why I had done such a thing.

My first instinct was to lie, to say I was just swiping my hair from my face. She didn’t buy it, and I was a bad liar anyway. I wept immediately and I threw up twice at the thought of her telling my mother. I am not sure she ever did tell my mother (yep, momma, I did that; sorry this is how you are hearing about it), as my contrition was as sincere and innocent as the bird I flipped at her. I vowed I would never be that kid again; that incident was enough to keep me on teacher’s pet train. I rode that puppy all the way through college.

I was the kid that the parents and teachers loved. I behaved well (until high school, where my desire to be popular out-stipped my desire to be seen as perfect), I studied hard, I was polite. And I was handsomely rewarded for these characteristics. Honor awards, special recognition, captainship of various sports teams and such, scholarships out the wazoo.

It took many years for God to uncover how much people-pleasing and perfection-seeking had determined so much of my behavior and my identity. It’s hard to undo what has been praised and rewarded for most of your life, and yet God loved me enough to show me how much self-reliance, self-dependence, and desire to be perfect kept me from experiencing life, relationships, and most-importantly His grace.

Grace is a hard thing for perfectionists. It isn’t attached to behavior, it rewards both the failure and the top-finisher, and it rubs us the wrong way. Grace requires God-reliance and dependence, which sound and feel a lot like failure and weakness to the recovering perfectionist.

The goal of my perfectionist life was that people would see me and say or think, “That Aimee, she does all things well.”The problem is that no one can do all things well, at least not forever. Eventually failure or exhaustion catch up to you, which is the best gift that can be given to any overly-driven perfectionist.

I will never forget the day I read Mark 7:37. “They (the crowds) were utterly astonished, saying, ‘He (Jesus) has done all things well‘.”

The point of the Christian life is that we would look to Jesus, to His perfect life, His obedient death, and His powerful resurrection. He is all that we cannot be, and He imputes His life to us. In Him, we have the security, the confidence, the significance, the approval that we have been seeking through the path of our own perfection.

Many parents read the parable commonly known as “The Prodigal Son,” and walk away, if they are honest, with the hope and intent that their child(ren) will never have to be a prodigal, one who runs away from home, lives wantonly, feels the consequence and comes home begging for forgiveness. These are understandable hopes, as no parent wants to experience estrangement from their child or the pain that comes from poor choices.

The problem is that there are two sons in the parable, which should more-truthfully be called “The Parable of the Forgiving Father.” The older brother is just as estranged and broken as the younger brother. Though he is near proximally,  he is far relationally from his father. He is working the performance path, trying to gain significance, trying to prove himself. While his brother is living it up and failing left and right, he has stayed home and succeeded. But his success and self-dependence keep him insulated from and bitter at the gracious provision and heart of His father. He is working for what would be given freely, if only he would come in weakness.

That being said, I walk away from this parable, fearing more that I would parent a perfectionist than a prodigal. I fear that my children, especially those predisposed to people-pleasing and performance, would miss the very thing that sets Christianity apart from every other religion and philosophy: the abundant, freely-given grace of God.

I want my children to do well, as any good parent does. I don’t want them to experience any of the deep failures or isolating estrangements or physical addictions that parents are so prone to fear.

But I am also aware that one way to fail to experience the grace of God is a more subtle addiction to success and performance and self-dependence. This addiction flies under the worry-radar because it produces such successful and outwardly obedient children.

Whether their propensity is to please themselves like the prodigal or to please others like the older brother, I long for my children to know the unconditional love of the Father. I long for them to know that only Jesus does all things well. I long for them to stand securely in the grace that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection secured for them at so great a price.

I long for these things for them, because I long for them for myself. As a recovering older brother, I still find myself looking for life in my performance rather than in my perfect parent, my forgiving Father.

I am thankful that God has great experience in parenting perfectionists as well as prodigals. I am thankful that He does all things well.

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