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Why Conversations With Parents About Perfectionism Are Messy But Important

In Vicki Abeles recent New York TImes op-ed, "Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?," she contends that "Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control." Abeles is in good company in her critique of the culture of perfectionism (impacting school communities, like mine, that can afford such an obsession). There has been a recent profusion of articles, films and books imploring parents to recalibrate their expectations for the sake of more meaningful learning and the emotional health of their children. From teacher/ writer Jessica Lahey's, "The Gift of Failure," to Paul Tough's, "How Children Succeed," the perils of micro-managing our children's education seems to be a cautionary theme in the parent sphere and it resonates with many of my own teacher concerns.

In her article, Abeles points to physician reports of students, as young as early elementary school, suffering from uprecedented rates of migraine headaches and ulcers and suggests that they are connected to performance pressure. From my teacher perch, I have definitely witnessed a noticeable shift occur over the past 28 years: More and more of my students' parents have gone from understanding that children have innate strengths and challenges to believing that their children should be strong in all areas. This has led to a proliferation of tutors hired to give students an edge with any subject that doesn't come easy. And as the anxiety levels steadily increase in my classroom, I too, can't help but wonder if they are related to the pressure we are putting on children to be excellent—at all costs.  

As a parent or teacher, accepting a child's academic imperfections in any area is a difficult line to draw. How much struggle or challenge should we accept? When do we allow a student be satisfactory at a skill? How do we comfortably define satisfactory? If we accept average performance, are we giving up on the student, or, worse yet, applying a "fixed mindset" when considering their potential and possibilities? 

The grey area related to struggle is particularly tricky territory for me. As a mother of a very dyslexic son, whose early academic struggles were diminished and wished away as a normal learning lag during his first years of school, I know the dangers of normalizing challenges. His struggles were obviously not productive or normal, and as a result of inaction, he did not receive critical reading remediation until he was in 4th grade. But students with learning challenges also suffer, maybe even more than most, when we approach every student who is not excelling in all areas as one who needs "fixing."

Here is the other tricky truth: Excessive parent intervention and facilitation often improves student academic achievement. But we need to ask at what cost. Student joy? Peace? Creativity? Love of learning? A sense of autonomy? If students are always being fixed, how can they help but not feel broken? Children only have so much time in a day. There is definitely a point of diminishing returns when it comes to spending time addressing less than perfect academic areas. How can we preserve space for children to learn and make discoveries at their own pace if they are constantly being measured and evaluated to determine what they need to work on?

As untidy, nuanced and complicated as conversations about perfectionsim can be, I nonetheless set a New Year's resolution to engage parents more honestly about their expectations for their children. It will require courage because there is no manual to help clarify or codify these interactions. I will also have to be prepared to accommodate diverse values and perspectives regarding academic achievement. Maybe I won't get beyond explicit questions about trade-offs or discussions of the inherent pressures associated with trying to be good at everything. I may even ultimately discover that teachers can't influence parent expectations for their children, but the toxic culture of academic perfectionism seems too important not to address. 

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