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Seth Matlins Headshot

Explaining Perfect

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How do you explain what "perfect" is to your kids, when they're 5 and 6?

Do you define it as the absence of flaws, or is it the presence of flaws that don't matter? Is it attainable or unattainable, something they should strive for, expect, ignore? Not so easy, right?

Here's why I ask. My kids were playing in the back when their quiet play erupted into a scream of dismay. As I rushed to see who'd just lost a finger or who had lit the other's hair on fire (you'd think I'd have learned by now), Dear Daughter yells "Daddy, (Dear Son) just said I wasn't perfect but that he is."

Okay. Hmmm. Right. In the spur of the moment I had no idea what to say; days later I still don't. Here's what went through my mind as I stood there though: "Dear Son, your sister is perfect." Nope. "Dear Son, you're not perfect either." Nope. "You're both perfect." Nope. "Neither of you is perfect." Nope. "You're both perfect just the way you are." Not exactly. "Children, perfection is an unattainable idea piggy-backing on fear and want and perpetuated by the beauty-industrial complex." Nope, that seemed wrong too (at least in the moment).

So I looked "perfect" up. Here's what Google had to say:

   [adj., n. pur-fikt; v. per-fekt] adjective
1. conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type: a perfect sphere; a perfect gentleman.
2. excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement: There is no perfect legal code. The proportions of this temple are almost perfect.
3. exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose: a perfect actor to play Mr. Micawber; a perfect saw for cutting out keyholes.
4. entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings: a perfect apple; the perfect crime.
5. accurate, exact, or correct in every detail: a perfect copy.

And so I ask again, how do you explain what perfect is to a 5 and 6 year-old? Defining it is as easy as Googling it. But explaining it, contextualizing it, providing the first developmental foundation and framework for it, as my grandmother would have said, that's a whole different bowl of borscht.

We want our kids to strive for excellence. We want them to reach for that which sits beyond their grasp as a means of finding and extending their limits, and of learning that failure isn't just what happens but how we react to what happens. But what about perfection? Is that a noble aspiration, even if it's certainly not a realistic one?

Does teaching our kids that our imperfections and flaws are human and beautiful and inevitable teach them that -- or does it teach them too settle for imperfection, and thus not to strive or try?

Days later, I really don't know what I said. I know I mumbled something about fairytales and the Olympics and eyes of the beholder. I do know whatever I said wasn't a very good answer.

What would you tell your kids? What would you tell mine? What and who amongst us is perfect? Not knowing the answer to that last question, I am certain the answer is either all of us or none of us, and not some of us -- despite what my Dear Son said to my Dear Daughter.