If there is anything Satan does well, it is the spiritual bait and switch. He takes a good thing, twists it with a bit of pride and presents us with a counterfeit. Take obedience, for example. True obedience is the manifestation of faith. It flows from a heart warmed by the knowledge that God has so loved us that He gave His begotten Son to accomplish the work of salvation for us. Obedience is not squirming under God’s thumb; it is joyfully embracing God and all that He is. Just a slight twist of pride, though, turns obedience into legalism. Legalism flows, not from a heart that relishes the graciously-bestowed favor of God’s countenance, but from the pride of believing that His favor can be deserved and maintained through our rule-keeping. Legalism denies the need for the Gospel in our lives and seeks to elevate us above others.
When we slip into legalism (as we all do), we are prone to deceive ourselves and call it obedience. But legalism is a burden that becomes drudgery. It encourages us to be judgmental toward others we fear might be better than we are, rather than rejoicing in their successes. It encourages us to make excuses for our sins, rather than repenting of them and moving on in the grace of forgiveness. It promotes self-loathing and the fear that our weaknesses might be exposed to others. It encourages us to construct more and more rules to safeguard our right standing before God, while denying ourselves the warmth of His embrace. It leads us to resent others who live in Christian freedom and refuse to validate our rules. Gods offers His children loving obedience; Satan defrauds us with a burden of bitter, anxious legalism. Satan would rob us of our joy.
At Tall Oaks, one of our core values is excellence, and rightly so. Excellence is offering up our work and our service to God, doing all that we do in service to our King and for His glory. But like all the good things of God, Satan can twist excellence with pride and offer us a counterfeit. A bait and switch alternative to excellence is perfectionism. Like legalism, perfectionism is a heavy burden and bitter to the soul. Perfectionism encourages us to measure our value as human beings by the standards of our work. It encourages us to seek validation by the approval of others and makes us unable to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done. In regards to schoolwork, it replaces striving to learn and equip oneself for service to God with striving to earn a grade on a report card. Again, Satan would rob us of our joy and replace it with anxiety and drudgery.
Outwardly, perfectionism may produce what looks like excellence, but at what cost? If our children earn all A’s and do well on standardized tests, but have no joy in what they have learned, what have they gained? We don’t want our children to simply “know” good literature; we want them to love it. We don’t want them to just work the math problem correctly; we want them to revel in the beauty of God’s order. We cannot be satisfied with their knowing the anatomy and physiology of one of God’s creatures if they do so without contemplating the creative mind of the One who designed it. The students of Tall Oaks are working very hard to learn a lot of things. They are good things! Their hard work should bring them joy.
For parents it is a difficult thing to lead our children to embrace excellence and yet avoid perfectionism. Our own perfectionism and our own laziness can lead us off either side of the right path. We need to think through how we communicate with our children about their work. What messages are we sending intentionally or unintentionally? What principles do we need to keep in mind?
One principle is to remember what school work is for and what it is not. The purpose of school work is to gain knowledge and hone skills; it is not to earn a grade. Grades are a useful tool in determining how a student is advancing in his or her learning, but they are not the goal. How do we avoid communicating that grades are the goal? Some might say it is to stop giving grades or to give everyone who tries hard an A. But isn’t a better solution to be careful to regard grades correctly and keep them in perspective? When helping our children prepare for a test, do we withhold our praise and approval until after we see the test results? Why not praise preparation done at home and express our own interest in the material learned? “This is great stuff you’re learning! You sure know a lot about Augustine!” Let’s avoid making, “How did you do on your test?” the first greeting our children hear when they return home from school. When a child has been diligent to prepare, showing disappointment with a grade that is lower than we would like or allowing our children to grumble about the grade is a temptation for a perfectionist response. If necessary, we need to confess our own grade anxiety to our children and let them know we do not want them to follow the same path.
Another principle to keep in mind is the purpose of education. We are not educating our children to personal glory or perfection. Our interest is not that they will measure up to a worldly standard. We are educating them for God’s service. We do not know right now what callings God has for our children. All we can do is give them the best education we can—an education that teaches them to think, learn and express themselves. We can trust God to give them the passion, the experience and the abilities they need to pursue their individual callings. Why not wonder aloud about this with our children? “You are so blessed in math! How do you think God will use that in your future?” “I am so pleased with the way you have worked hard to overcome the challenges you have had with writing. Look how you have improved! God has shown you the blessings of perseverance, hasn’t He? I think He will use that lesson again in your life.”
A third principle to keep in mind is that all our abilities and all our successes come from God. Therefore, a lack of ability in us is not a reflection of our worth, it is simply not a necessary gift at this time for the work God has for us. He has equipped others in those areas and we can rejoice with them in that. Likewise, our personal strengths are not of our doing and should not be a cause for pride. Perfectionism can stifle our ability to be the encouragement to others that God has called us to be. By example we can teach our children to rejoice in the successes of others without feeling threatened by the thought of a comparison to ourselves. We can also encourage our children to regard their personal challenges as gifts from God as well, sent to teach us and strengthen us in ways that easy success cannot do.
Finally, we need to teach our children (and ourselves) to present our labors to God without having reached perfection. Again, this is a path from which we can divert in two directions. Laziness can cause us to present unfinished and sloppy work—work that does not represent excellence. But perfectionism can cause us to labor beyond productivity in a vain effort to achieve near perfection. Sometimes this manifests itself in procrastination—we tremble at the thought of submitting work that doesn’t meet expectations. Sometimes this manifests itself in laboring beyond the point at which a job has been sufficiently and excellently done, to gain only minor or irrelevant improvement. We need to know at what point a task is done and done well and not let our pride prevent us from offering it up to God and to others with all its imperfections.
Perfectionism robs us of the joy of excellence and the love of learning and replaces them with anxiety and drudgery. May God use us to guide our children away from carrying that awful burden as they learn to offer up their work to the Lord.