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November 01, 2013

Something like this is familiar to all of us: we notice the car needs washing, and despite the late hour and a poor night’s sleep, we drag out a bucket and sponge and give it a good shampoo. While admiring our handiwork, we realize the interior could use vacuuming and a wipe-down as well. But by then we’re tired and figure that what we’ve done is good enough for one day — even though it isn’t our best.

Or preparing dinner for friends, we fuss over a soup and a delicious entrée but lack the energy to whip up a dessert. A nice cake from the bakery will have to do. It will be good enough, we tell ourselves, while knowing that the dinner overall doesn’t equal our best.

Life is a balancing act as we apportion energy across family, career, personal time, social life, and more. We know we’d drive ourselves crazy if everything we do needed to measure up literally to our “best.”

And yet it’s hard to find a parent who doesn’t regularly tell their children, especially when it comes to schoolwork or athletics: always do your best. Not sometimes, not often, but always!

Our intentions are good, but the message is misguided. Where in those words is the space for our sons and daughters to learn the concept “good enough”? Where in those words are they able to learn that life is a balancing act — balancing scarce resources like time and energy and money — in order to shape realistic expectations of themselves when it comes to what’s doable? Where in those words is room for perfectionistic kids — as well as all the others — to learn to accept with grace and without self-flagellation achievement that falls short of their best, but is simply the best they did — no matter the reason — on any particular day? Must they always deliver their best? Is it how we live our lives?

There’s consensus among child development experts that acknowledging our kids’ effort serves them more than emphasizing their achievement. Maybe that’s the good intention that gave birth to always do your best (as in, always give it your best effort). But what our kids hear is something like, “Never cut yourself slack.”

Let’s rethink our words and help our children learn that sometimes “good enough” is just fine.