In This Together

Wrestling with our (children’s) limitations
I recently read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and I was particularly struck by her brief chapter on defending our weaknesses, and that in doing so we get to keep them. It made me think of the conversations we have at school with students whose worries impose limitations on their own capacity, day in and day out, which can result in the girls underestimating their source of creativity, originality, and uniqueness. In these cases, the fear voice within takes the driver’s seat and becomes a dominant energy. We try to help young people recognise their deeper and more supportive source of wisdom, the more internal quieter voice that knows better and actually desires to burst forth and reveal itself fully.

And I hold that in contrast to the conversations we have with students or their parents who seem motivated by another fear – that of being imperfect. It can be quite painful watching young people become crippled by this destructive force, made worse if not all the sensible adults in the child’s life keep it in check and refuse to feed it. The ultimate irony of the excessive perfectionistic experience is that it is in itself a chink, a limitation.

One regular example of destructive perfectionistic thinking can be seen when it comes to perceptions of ‘being in trouble’. In the secondary school, our discipline system includes Penalty Points for minor misdemeanours and then Detentions either for an accrual of these Penalty Points or for something more significant. Most students readily accept a Penalty Point when they have breached a school expectation and recognise when it is justified. Sometimes a student reacts in a manner entirely disproportionate to the minor offence and penalty, fearing that it might impact her future and her potential results, awards or leadership possibilities. And sometimes this overreaction and misconception are supported by a parent.

A bit like the ultimate irony of the perfectionistic experience being unhelpful, so too is the overbearing defence of our children’s limitations, minor mistakes, and flaws. In these overly reactive circumstances, more is revealed of the child’s or parent’s fears and as educators we come to regret the lack of acceptance that sometimes we get things wrong. Coping with even the smallest failures and being able to put their consequences into perspective is the mark of a resilient child.

There are times when we need to draw on the courage to fight our self-imposed limitations, indeed. And there are times when we should accept them. I guess wisdom is knowing the difference.

Sophie Kearns
Director of Pastoral Care