As I was picking up toys in the living room, I found a crumpled up piece of paper under the coffee table.
I opened it up and smoothed out the crinkles and revealed one of my toddler’s drawings. He had recently been learning to draw people–combining simple lines and circles, and I had heard cries of frustration from him earlier in the day but didn’t want to interfere unless he asked for help. I showed him the drawing and asked why he crumpled it up.
I tried to reassure him and encouraged him to just keep trying, but internally my heart was breaking. He was barely even 3, but was already struggling with making mistakes. I also felt responsible. I try so hard to just be encouraging with my kids’ endeavors, but were my personal flaws somehow causing this?
Since high school, I’ve struggled with perfectionism. In the competitive environment of honors classes, extracurricular activities and applying to colleges, I found myself striving for perfection in everything I did.
In many ways, it was beneficial. It pushed me to create my best work, and to set high goals for myself. I learned to manage my time effectively and create a good work ethic. But it wasn’t healthy. I put too much pressure on myself to succeed. If I made any mistakes, I’d feel like a failure, and I’d beat myself up over it.
It’ll probably always be a part of my personality (I still test as a 1-The Perfectionist on the Enneagram), but I don’t strive for it in everything I do anymore. I try to set realistic goals and expectations, and to prioritize tasks. When we became parents and I realized how much more stressful our lives were becoming, I knew I needed to relax even more. I thought I had been doing well with modeling a more carefree attitude to my children, but maybe that wasn’t enough.
In the days and weeks following the crumpled drawing, I focused on being more aware of the example I was setting for my son. I tried to point out my flaws more. If I messed up, I’d point it out and show ways I could fix the mistake, or even just reinforce it’s okay to move on.
We also read Barney Saltzberg’s Beautiful Oops more often. It’s an adorable book that teaches it’s ok to mess up. An accidental tear in a piece of paper can become an alligator’s mouth, or a stain or drop of paint can inspire many possibilities. There’s actually creative potential in making mistakes.
I tried harder not to fix things he had messed up, to not swoop in and do things myself, even if it were easier. I started to see some small changes and some relaxing on his part, but couldn’t really tell that it had made much of a difference until about a year later.
Now 4 years old, he was drawing a picture of one of the aliens from Toy Story with a green marker. He was drawing it from memory, and I was so impressed with it, even though he just the outline so far, so I snapped a photo of it.
A little bit later, he had moved on to other things, but I saw the somewhat unfinished drawing laying on the coffee table. He had started coloring the alien, but had filled in one of the eyes and then stopped working on it completely. I asked him about it, thinking he must have messed up and grown frustrated, but he smiled big and started laughing “The alien is sick, Mommy! I colored in his eye and it made him look sick! Isn’t it funny?”
Yep. It’s funny. It’s a beautiful oops. Here’s to more of them.
Kristi Montague is a designer, maker and jack-of-all-trades who owns and operates Montague Workshop, a creative studio, with her husband Brad. From Kid President to books and birds and more, their studio aims to joyfully rebel against the world that is to create the world that could be. She’s also a mama two toddlers and lives in a 117-year-old house in rural Tennessee. You can follow her on Instagram, and see the latest projects from Montague Workshop on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
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