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How Do You Explain “Perfect”?

12 comments | March 22nd, 2012

(story by seth@OOC)

Quick background.  (Cue serious-movie-voice-over-guy) What you are about to read is true.  It happened.  It was also first published on the Huffington Post.  But since we wrote it, we figured we can repost it here.  So, here's our story, which begins and ends with  question…

How do you explain what "perfect" is to your kids, when they're 5 and 6?

Do you define it as the absence of flaws, or is it the presence of flaws that don't matter? Is it attainable or unattainable, something they should strive for, expect, ignore? Not so easy, right?

Here's why I ask. My kids (that's them up top) were playing in the back when their quiet play erupted into a scream of dismay. As I rushed to see who'd just lost a finger or who had lit the other's hair on fire (you'd think I'd have learned by now), Dear Daughter yells "Daddy, (Dear Son) just said I wasn't perfect but that he is."

Okay. Hmmm. Right. In the spur of the moment I had no idea what to say; days later I still don't. Here's what went through my mind as I stood there though: "Dear Son, your sister is perfect." Nope. "Dear Son, you're not perfect either." Nope. "You're both perfect." Nope. "Neither of you is perfect." Nope. "You're both perfect just the way you are." Not exactly. "Children, perfection is an unattainable idea piggy-backing on fear and want and perpetuated by the beauty-industrial complex." Nope, that seemed wrong too (at least in the moment).

So I looked "perfect" up. Here's what Google had to say:

per·fect
   [adj., n. pur-fikt; v. per-fekt] adjective
1. conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type: a perfect sphere; a perfect gentleman.
2. excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement: There is no perfect legal code. The proportions of this temple are almost perfect.
3. exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose: a perfect actor to play Mr. Micawber; a perfect saw for cutting out keyholes.
4. entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings: a perfect apple; the perfect crime.
5. accurate, exact, or correct in every detail: a perfect copy.

And so I ask again, how do you explain what perfect is to a 5 and 6 year-old? Defining it is as easy as Googling it. But explaining it, contextualizing it, providing the first developmental foundation and framework for it, as my grandmother would have said, that's a whole different bowl of borscht.

We want our kids to strive for excellence. We want them to reach for that which sits beyond their grasp as a means of finding and extending their limits, and of learning that failure isn't just what happens but how we react to what happens. But what about perfection? Is that a noble aspiration, even if it's certainly not a realistic one?

Does teaching our kids that our imperfections and flaws are human and beautiful and inevitable teach them that — or does it teach them too settle for imperfection, and thus not to strive or try?

Days later, I really don't know what I said. I know I mumbled something about fairytales and the Olympics and eyes of the beholder. I do know whatever I said wasn't a very good answer.

What would you tell your kids? What would you tell mine? What and who amongst us is perfect? Not knowing the answer to that last question, I am certain the answer is either all of us or none of us, and not some of us — despite what my Dear Son said to my Dear Daughter.

12 comments

  • Rory

    Posted on March 22, 2012

    Do you really not know what you said? It’s a hard question.

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    • Lady Jane

      Posted on March 22, 2012

      I totally agree and hadn’t thought about it before this. My niece is 8 and I don’t know what I think she should know about being “perfect”. I gues I don’t even know what I think about being perfect is.

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    • OOC

      Posted on March 22, 2012

      NO CLUE…just babbled my way out the door. How’s that for great parenting?

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  • M.T.C.

    Posted on March 22, 2012

    Try this one. Perfect is a state of mind or being that accepts there are heights to which we can get and limits which we can not get beyond.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted on March 22, 2012

    If my kids were young, I would tell them perfect is their best effort and that the result doesn’t matter. If my kids were older I would tell them perfect is a standard which maybe they should have in mind but against which they shouldn’t measure themselves. I wish someone had told me that.

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  • Tannis

    Posted on March 22, 2012

    I use to tell my kids, that no one is perfect and that if we were all perfect life would be boring because nothing would be different. It is an unrealistic value. You are unique, flaws and all with qualities that are best suit to you as an indiviual and to focus on those qualities that sets you apart from others and grow from there.

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  • Cheryl

    Posted on March 22, 2012

    My 6-year-old son started using the word perfect around 3 1/2 to describe things he’s extremely happy about (to be honest, I’m not even sure where he picked it up). Quite often, he’ll ask me for something – say cookies before dinner – to which I reply, “not right now, but after dinner you can have some”. I will then ask him what he thinks. 95% of the time, his answer is “perfect”. I think he’s got a pretty good grasp of “it’s not exactly what I wanted, but it’s pretty darn good”, even if he doesn’t articulate it that way. We really don’t discuss people’s physical appearances in our house, and use phrases like “good work”, “we’ll try harder next time”, and things like that to describe people’s actions. If I were you, I would probably say no one is perfect, but we can try as hard as we can to be good people – that’s all that really matters.

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    • OOC

      Posted on March 22, 2012

      Cheryl…thanks for this. We love both your advice: “no one is perfect, but we can try as hard as we can to be good people – that’s all that really matters” and that your little man grasps that “perfect” can sometimes be pretty darn good.

      Thanks for taking the time to share and be part of the conversation…

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  • Thomas

    Posted on August 5, 2012

    I do believe in perfection. And I have 3 little ones and I plan to train them up to attain perfection. We tend to over reach the word perfect to think of something or someone without flaws but perfect in its truest since I believe and many resources back this up, is completeness. It is something or someone which/who lacks nothing but is equipped for a specific purpose. Think of a ceramic mold as it may have flaws within its crafting but when you place an agent such as liquified brass within the mold that adheres to every crack and crevis and results into a finished brass product that is an exact replica of its mold that is a perfect sculpture that is a complete agent that reflects its goal or standard “the mold”. I feel that saying noone is perfect is a shot in the face to everybody because it almost says that there are no real standards or real expectations. So why try if a person is not trying to be perfect? Why take a test in school if your not aiming for 100%? Why practice if your not expecting to win?
    To that question many people may respond “its all about having fun” for parents attempting to keep their kids a “self esteem bubble” well if that is the case why not when teams practice week after week say in basketball, when they are playing in a real game decided to shoot in the other teams goal for the entire game, or maybe hold the ball and run around the gym never dribbling the ball crossing over the out-of-bounds line repeatedly. I’m sure that would be fun and entertaining. But thats not the case people practice to excel at something because there is a standard of perfection that everyone desires to attain and its attainable. I feel its only those who have been met with failure that has made them give up on their goal who are the ones discouraging others from achieving and even desiring to acheive perfection. But they tend to do it in an encouraging way. Its not encouraging to say no one is perfect or that no one can achieve perfection.

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    • FMB

      Posted on August 6, 2012

      Thanks, Thomas. You make a lot of good points. Your definition of perfection as complete versus flawless is our favorite of them. Again, thanks for joining the conversation.

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