My five-year-old can crack an egg like a pro. Whenever I need an egg or two cracked, I call her and she happily comes running to comply, proud that she can help her mommy. But it wasn’t always like this. You see, I’m a perfectionist in many ways. You’d never be able to tell that given the state of my house, mind you, but in those areas where I can be in complete control, I’m all about perfection. And frankly, allowing a preschooler to crack an egg is far from perfect. It’s messy. There were a lot of egg shells that ended up in the bowl and lots of gummy egg white dripping down the side of the bowl and onto the counter while she was still learning. It galled me to no end. But each time she tried, she got a step closer in learning how to crack an egg properly, and now she loves to show off that skill every time I need her help. Although I have a long way to go, I remind myself of a saying my brother likes: Don’t let perfect get in the way of better.
Don’t let perfect get in the way of better. That phrase could be used in many different contexts, and my brother often uses it as a businessman. But I believe it applies as well to those of us who have the joy and responsibility of parenting. Let’s face it—at some time, our kids will grow up, and when they do, we need to know we have equipped them with the skills they need to function away from home. Have you ever known an adult whose parents did everything for them growing up? I have. And they are at a distinct disadvantage because they don’t know how to do their own laundry, make their own meals, or clean their own house. It’s not a pretty sight. And I certainly don’t want my own kids to grow up to be like that, but at the same time, it really is so much easier to just do it myself. I can do most things better and faster than they can, so it’s easy to tell myself, Oh, I’ll do it myself this time. I can always teach them to do this later… But be careful. Don’t let “perfect” get in the way of “better.” You aren’t (or shouldn’t be) doing your household chores for perfection while you have young kids at home. Settle for “better.” Teaching your five-year-old how to make her own bed certainly won’t be perfect, but it’s better than you doing it for her all the time. Allowing your ten-year-old to do his own laundry won’t be perfect, but it’s better for him to learn to do it himself than for you to keep doing it until he’s an adult. I know, because my ten-year-old does his own laundry, and there are times he misses a tissue in his pocket or forgets to pre-treat the grass stain on his jeans. But each of those things teaches him something for the next time, and honestly, I’d rather have him learn these lessons on jeans I got at a garage sale in the first place than on the $70 jeans he buys in high school.
Another phrase I keep in mind is one my sister-in-law uses. (They’re a smart pair, my brother and his wife…) She teaches an art class for preschoolers and reminds us that it’s about the process rather than the product. In her art class, kids aren’t going to come home with museum-worthy artwork. The things they draw and color and paint may not even look like the class example. But that’s okay. It’s about the process of learning how to draw, color, and paint. The same can be said of kids learning chores at home. Yes, my five-year-old made a lot of messes while she was learning to crack an egg. But it was a process. I was teaching her a skill and couldn’t expect her to get it right the first time (or even first ten times!). In teaching kids to help, remind yourself that it’s the process that counts, not the finished product.
That’s a hard lesson, and one I’m still learning. Once I was teaching my boys how to steam mop the kitchen. I had my second grader do the kitchen itself while my fourth grader did the back hallway and laundry room. When they got done, I realized it wasn’t a very good job. And since I steam mop so rarely, I really wanted this time to be worthwhile. So I made the number one parenting mistake and redid their work. I thought I was safe, because they were holed up in their room (probably trying to avoid me so I wouldn’t make them do any more chores). But right in the middle of my furtive, hurried deed, my second grader walked in on me. Oh, the shame! He was crestfallen. “Mommy, I just did that!” he cried. And I felt like I was about two inches tall. So I did what any good parent would do. I lied. “Oh, honey, I know, but then I spilled some juice right here and didn’t want your nice clean floor to be all sticky. I’m just doing this one little part. You did an awesome job.” He bought it (I think), but I learned a valuable lesson. Never redo their work. Even when I find dirty spots on the dinner dishes my fourth grader washed, I make a point of putting them away while he’s watching. (If it’s too gross, I call him over and make him redo it. Or I wait until he’s in bed before rewashing them.) But don’t let them see you redoing their work or it discourages and insults them.
So what’s a parent to do? Start while your kids are young. Let them help you in age-appropriate ways. Teach boys and girls alike how to clean and cook and do their laundry. I often say my goal is that my future daughters-in-law will thank me someday for teaching my boys how to do these things. In the present day, yes, it’s about the process, not the immediate product. But look long term here. Eventually it is about the finished product. What you teach them now will have a profound impact on the type of adults they become. You don’t want to sacrifice short-term perfection for long-term character on their part. Look to the end result, but in the meantime remind yourself not to let perfect get in the way of better. Let them learn. It’s the process rather than the short-term product that counts. And speaking of which, I’ve gotta go. Time to make some scrambled eggs.