Her name was Magdalena Christina, but she went by Chris. I spent a lot of time with Chris during 4th through 6th grades. She lived with her grandparents on Moneta Avenue, three blocks away from me. I really liked Chris’s grandparents. Mrs. Gonzalez was the only one I knew who called Chris “Lena” (short for “Magdalena”). It sounded so pretty in her singsong Mexican tones. Once, I flounced in their door like it was my own home. Chris said, “Hi, Grandma!”
Flippantly, I also called out, “Hi, Grandma!”
She sternly but caringly replied, “Don’t you think it would be more polite to call me ‘Mrs. Gonzalez,’ Monica?” The way she said “Monica” was a song, too. I respected her more, starting that day.
Chris’s grades were generally A’s, B’s, and C’s. Once, walking to Chris’s house on a report card day, Chris made some suggestions to me. She knew I had gotten straight A’s again. Mrs. Gonzalez also knew what my grades tended to be. “If Grandma thought you had worse grades this time, she wouldn’t be as mad at me for what my report card looks like.”
I took the hint.
We walked in the house. “Hi, Grandma,” said Chris.
“Hi, Mrs. Gonzalez,” I greeted.
Chris showed her grandma the report card. I don’t remember that conversation. Then Mrs. Gonzalez said to me, “What did you get, Monica?”
I did not hesitate. “Some B’s, a couple of C’s,” I said, lying.
If satisfaction had an appearance, it looked like Chris at that moment. If disappointment had an appearance and a sound, it looked and sounded like Mrs. Gonzalez. “I’m disappointed in you, Monica.” She went on to tell me how important it was to keep up my grades, how I shouldn’t have let them drop so much. The worst part was, she never suspected that I was lying. She trusted me.
I remembered this story wondering if it had anything to do with perfectionism. Does it?
Chris told me that, if she ever got straight A’s, her grandparents would send her on a Hawaii trip. When I got straight A’s, I got a dollar for every A. (Something happened in junior high, when Chris and I no longer went to the same school. Her grades suddenly shot up. She did eventually get straight A’s and became valedictorian of that school.)
A dollar for every A. That didn’t even make ten bucks. With Hawaii on my mind, I felt that in my house, good grades were cheap. Maybe because they were considered a given. Straight A’s—it’s just what we normally expect.
Yes, I think this is a story of perfectionism and what it can do. Unhealthy perfectionism can cheapen, undermine, and ignore progress. Bad perfectionism snuffs out encouragement.
Now I teach home school, having just finished our school year. The boys are ahead in most subjects. When I grade Derek’s math assignments and the total is below 90%, I have found myself getting tense—even disappointed. I sigh and mutter things under my breath, like:
“I can’t believe it.”
“What is going on here?”
“He made that same mistake! Again?”
I’m pretty sure that’s not a good way to raise a child or be his teacher.
In my own heart, perfectionism and grace don’t tend to be companions. But I do believe there is a good, healthy kind of perfectionism. I do believe in striving for the highest, but often forget the necessity of grace.
In my life, I want perfectionism and grace to be twins, holding hands as they help one another and journey together.
So I ask for grace. God, help me! Help me to motivate myself and my children—to call them higher, for You always want growth toward Christlikeness—without being deficient in grace. Show me how You do it, Lord, for You do bring me above where I am, yet show me such unending grace wherever I am.
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