Rebuilding Trust in Imperfection

My realisation that insisting on perfection may have impaired learning and hindered academic confidence.

“Mom, can you come and sit with me?” I chased away an initial groan of reluctance and the temptation to dismiss her request with a throwaway remark that she really did not need me and she was more than capable of doing her work on her own. Instead, I placed my book down, mustered my most positive, lighthearted voice and chirped “Sure! I’m coming.”

I pulled up a chair right next to her, in front of our shared desktop computer. She had just logged onto a site for online maths. I took a deep breath and checked myself. For the next few minutes, I would have to sit on my words, modulate my breathing, maintain neutral body language and put all mental judgement aside. I was ready for this personal challenge!

Every few minutes, she looked to me for affirmation or asked my opinion of her answer. Each time I smiled gently. In my heart, an inner voice kept chanting a mantra of encouragement “You can do it. Believe in yourself. Trust in yourself.” Outwardly, I would say, “How do you feel? If you feel it is correct, then it is.” Deliberately replacing the word “think” with “feel” because there was no reason for her to doubt her own capability. After a long while, she stopped asking. I kept up my chanting the mantra, silently, “You can do it. Believe in yourself. Trust in yourself.”

All those minutes I sat next to her, my heart ached. In my spirit, I felt deep remorse. I will find the right time to apologise. I want to explain, at the time, I truly believed I was doing the right thing. I want to say sorry for scrubbing away her squiggly-formed numbers and insisting that she re-write them perfectly. I want to say sorry for screaming in frustration whenever she forgot her multiplication tables. I want to say sorry for the afternoon, three years ago, when I grabbed her near completed maths worksheets, scrunched them up, like you would a piece of unworthy recycled paper and yelled, “If you are not going to do it properly, exactly how I have taught you, then just forget it!” I can still see her face as if she was right in front of me – paused in absolute horror, too afraid to cry, grieving for her effort, now all destroyed and thrown into the bin.

Our mild mannered child would never anger or rebel when faced with such tyranny. I did not realise, she had her own approach to processing arithmetic and I would insist on one model answer and working method. Not permitting any exploration of alternative reasoning, even if it arrived at the correct answer. I did not believe in her. I did not trust in her. Had I unconsciously encouraged perfectionism, which only served to heighten her anxiety and insecurity?

Sitting right next to her this evening, I observed. She employed her own method. I tuned into her anxiety and self-doubt. It was intense. During those seconds before she chose to click the “Check Answer” button she would hesitate with trepidation. Immense relief would wash over her on seeing the green tick and on hearing the bell to signal that it was correct. And slowly afterwards, only very gradually, would she allow herself to celebrate with a sense of achievement. Her priceless smile was fleeting; disappearing as soon as she began reading the next question.

Success in maths is as much about mental ability as it is about mathematical confidence. It is now time for her to shed that learnt perfectionism which appears to hinder personal and academic growth. She is resilient when I do not interfere. In my silence, she tries. In her practice, she is rediscovering her own strengths. My mantra is a reminder to myself to believe and trust in my own child. My aspiration is for her to strive for knowledge and understanding, rather than wait to be led and presented with a perfect solution.

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Home as a Sanctuary

Understanding a need for quiet space as our children and their worlds grow louder, busier and more crowded.

Heavy footsteps stomp through the house. I hear the thud of a school bag being flung onto the floor. The door of the shoe cabinet slams and trudging continues as she heads towards the back of the house, where she will throw her socks sometimes absent mindedly into the recycling bin rather than the laundry basket. I hear running water as she splashes away cleaning her hands and then shouts out habitually, “Hi Mom, I’m home!”

At this point, my first instincts are to fly down the stairs, sweep her up in a big hug, slap a sloppy kiss on her sticky cheeks and enthusiastically ask to hear about every single minute of her day at school. I have learnt to hold back. Having long accepted, albeit grudgingly, that she prefers to be left alone to read while she has her post school meal to gaze at trees in the garden in the hopes of spotting another species of bird or clap at scurrying squirrels.

I can usually tell if she’s had a rough day at school based on the next few seconds. If she is whining, finding fault with what has been prepared for her lunch, it hasn’t been a great day. If she starts a chirpy conversation or shouts for me to come down for a chat, it’s been a good one. This year, I have definitely received fewer invitations.

The school year began earlier this year and her class has been reshuffled to include some old friends and new faces. I had the opportunity to ask my elder child what she experienced during the transition from the second to the third academic year of primary school. I added that I had been trying to figure out why her sister seemed more agitated in the afternoons this year.

“Mom, don’t you know?” she queried accusingly. She went on to remind me that it was the year that student numbers per class increased from just over thirty students to forty. “Of course, she’s cranky. I felt my personal space invaded. There are just so many people in the class of the same (physical) size as last year. We are all squeezed in! But the tables and chairs are higher. I guess they expect us to grow.” She went on to lament about the higher noise levels and the crowding when they gathered together for group work or when the teacher summoned them to view an exhibit. “The lines are also longer when we have to hand in our work and people always shoving or cutting queue.”

I made a mental note to give our growing children space. Deliberate quiet moments of sanctuary. No fretting at every turn, or questioning upon hearing that she may have chosen to spend recess alone or decline playdate invitations. Instead, I am now conscious that space at home, helps her regulate her need for calm away from chaos.

Disempowerment

Making a deliberate decision to stay silent.

“Mom, you don’t have to tell me. I know!” I click the red button on the phone and let out a huge huff. This was how I ended a conversation with my mother, for even in my forties, I will always be her little girl. I sat in the car, overcome by annoyance, paralysed by aggravation. Like a petulant child, I was wounded by her advice. Her well-intended counsel made me feel incompetent, inexperienced and undependable. It definitely was not her objective to instigate this unconstructive reaction. I breathed in deeply and slowly let the air seep from my lungs, as I let the child within me, reconcile.

This must be how our children feel when I insist, remind or worse still, badger. Except “being little” they are not permitted to express such exasperation or answer back. As parents, we cannot possibly tolerate such insolence!

As our brood matures, however, I have come to choose my battles. With each passing day, I choose to battle less and relate more. I am mindful of my intonation and for reminders to originate from sincerest of intentions rather than any insistence driven by ego and pride. That they should do as they are told without question or debate often means some demands fall on deaf ears and only intensifies parental frustration. I have long put aside any impulses that arise from judgment by others. Parenting is hard enough as it is.

We desire for our children to be confident and capable of independent thought. Therefore I have realised, insistence, without thoughtfulness, can be disempowering and may work to sabotage our aspiration. Constant suggestion without encouragement towards self-reliance can hamper individuality and that “sense of self” that we so hope they grow up to possess.

When I am tempted to utter that one last reminder or offer an alternative suggestion, I stop and ask “What is the worst thing that can happen if I don’t say it?”

When Words of Assurance are Not Enough

The magic of meditation and the power of affirmation

“But Mom, what if I fail?” My heart sank. I dread hearing this question because the same thought occasionally crosses my mind each time any of our children have an important test, race or any sort of performance evaluation. Admittedly, I do not always know how to dispel my own concern and worry. Tonight, I sensed the usual diatribe of dismissive words or throwaway phrases of assurance “Oh don’t be silly, of course you won’t!” would not do the trick. Neither would the motivational speaker routine and lecture on self-belief cut it.

I stood instead holding her in a complete embrace. We held each other in silence. I could feel the temperature of our bodies equalise and our breaths starting to sychronise. A minute passed with no words exchanged. We met each other as beings of emotion with no judgement. When I felt her breaking from this embrace, I engaged her with my eyes. I opened my mouth to let the words out slowly and in the most calm and measured voice I could muster. While I shared her feelings anxiety and empathised, I gently pushed away these unconstructive emotions, welcoming instead strength, calmness and assuredness.

“Would you like to do some visualisation?” I asked. She shrugged her shoulders, tightlipped, with doleful eyes looking downward. She didn’t say no. And so, I took that as a yes. I held her fingers lightly and led her to my side of the bed. She lay down and let her legs and arms fall to her side. I dimmed the lights and deliberately breathed in and out deeply and audibly as I sat down on the floor next to her. And I began speaking these words, slowly:

“Close your eyes and find a comfortable position. Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. With each inhalation and exhalation you find yourself feeling more and more relaxed. As you wiggle around to find a comfortable position, be aware of your breath and feel your body sinking deeper and deeper into the bed. When you are ready, try to be as still as you can be, let that busy feeling in your mind, slowly fade away.

You see a beautiful golden light over your forehead. Picture this light filling your mind and thoughts. Feel this golden light traveling down your head as the light touches your eyes…. ears …. nose …. cheeks ….. Let your mouth relax and open a little as you feel all the other muscles in your face loosen and relax. This golden light moves down your throat and your neck, your shoulders and arms, right to the tips of your fingers. Picture your lungs filling up each time you breathe with this beautiful golden light from Source, as it travels down your tummy, hips, legs and right to the ends of your toes. You are now feeling relaxed and calm.
You are the light. You are pure energy and love. Stay with this feeling of pure love.

Now imagine a room….”

I continued for a little longer, guiding her through imagery. Relieving her anxiety with positive affirmation.

Her eyes sparkled in that special way I have noticed each time after a meditation sitting. She lay still for a few more moments. After rubbing her eyes with her knuckles, she sat herself up. “Thank you Mom. I feel better.” to which I replied, “You’ve done a great job with your preparation, you will do your best tomorrow and enjoy the experience. It is just that, an experience.” We exchanged a quick hug and goodnight peck and she skipped up the stairs towards her bedroom.

This was the night before her first violin examination, one hour after I had put her to bed but she lay awake, unable to fall asleep.