homeschool teen boy thinking

Homeschooling Teens: Excellence Not Perfection

If you’ve spent any time around teenagers, you are probably aware that teens often struggle with insecurity. Insecurity about what? About everything! They feel insecurity about their physical appearance, about their talents, their future plans, their past decisions, opinions, style, and almost anything you can think of. In short, they are insecure about their self-worth.

What is the cause of this insecurity? Teenagers are insecure because they are in the process of “finding themselves” in the world—building an identity independent of their parents and family. There’s a lot of searching and uncertainty as they forge this identity for themselves.

Obsessive Perfection

Because their identity is still developing, they are exceptionally sensitive to input from outsiders, such as family, friends, and social media. Whether they admit it or not, teenagers crave external validation. As they navigate the paths of burgeoning adulthood, they desire affirmation that they are “doing it right.” For many teenagers, this desire turns into an obsessive perfectionism—feeling like everything they do must be perfect in order for it to have value. This perfectionism can manifest itself in a variety of ways, often resulting in behaviors detrimental to a child’s well-being:

  • A boy unhappy with his physique reduces his food intake to unhealthy levels to drop weight.
  • A girl is disgusted with her face because of a single patch of acne or blemish; she refuses to go out unless it blemish is buried under layers of makeup and does not allow herself to be photographed.
  • A student suffers inordinate stress over school work and exams, fearing that less than optimal grades will tank their future.
  • A girl stays up past midnight every night laboring to understand difficult math or Latin problems; the late nights cause her daytime functions to suffer and don’t help her master the subject matter any better.
  • A student loves to write but constantly throws their writing out in frustration or refuses to let anyone see it because they are embarrassed by it.
  • A boy suffers crippling anxiety when thinking about college plans, career choices, or anything to do with the future.
  • A child neglects opportunities for socializing or recreation because they feel they “don’t have time” due to their workload.
  •  Spiritually, a teen is scrupulous, constantly worried that God is angry or disappointed in them for real or perceived failures.
  • Your child shows an interest in art or other creative endeavors, but refuses to explore their creative side because they feel “not good enough.”
  • Your son or daughter is constantly worried that their friends don’t really like them.

Excellence vs. Perfection

Some of these are normal teenage behaviors. But taken to extremes, these sorts of behaviors can lead to highly undesirable outcomes, such as compulsive habits, eating disorders, or panic attacks. While addressing the specifics of some of these behaviors is best left to a professional therapist, as parents we should recognize when perfectionism is negatively influencing a child’s life. Parents can help curb these behaviors by helping children strive for excellence instead of perfection. What is the difference between excellence and perfection? Let’s compare the definitions:

Excellence: The quality of excelling; possessing good qualities in high degree.
Perfection: The action or process of improving something until it is faultless or as faultless as possible.

Perfection consists in the flawlessness of the end product of an endeavor. Perfection is the A+, the Latin sentence translated flawlessly, the recital performed without error, the sinless life, the artistic masterpiece. Focusing on perfection anchors our mind to the end product and causes us to find value in an undertaking only to the degree that the end product is formally perfect. However, since it is not possible for something to be entirely flawless, it is an unreachable standard. It thus leaves us wasting ourselves away grasping for something we can never attain while feeling awful about ourselves for not attaining it.

Excellence, on the other hand, denotes excelling. Excellence focuses much more on the effort than on the end product; it is more about the quality of the journey. Excellence is learning from your mistakes, asking questions to clarify misunderstandings, going back over your incorrect math homework to see where you messed up, being willing to experiment with a method to find the best way, seeking out and listening to feedback, intellectual curiosity about a subject. Since excellence is more about the way we work, we focus more on the process instead of the end product. Since excellence does not demand we meet an impossible standard, we find we can always work with excellence regardless of our skill level.

Attributes of Excellence

In my life as a teacher, I have had many excellent students. An excellent student is not a student who always gets 100%. An excellent student is one who strives to truly understand the course material. They ask questions. They engage. They put themselves out there—sometimes getting the answer wrong or missing the point, but that’s okay, because the reason they are putting themselves out there is so that they might understand. Excellent students know that to master running you must first master walking, and that it is okay to trip and fall along the way. A student is excellent when you can observe how they grow, and how they positively manage their growth. These sorts of students are vastly more impressive and memorable than those who merely get 100% all the time but don’t demonstrate interest, initiative, growth, or struggle.

How do we teach our teens to strive for excellence instead of perfection?

This is a big question that we can’t exhaustively cover here, but the following maxims are a good place to start:

  • Help them understand the value of failure as part of growth
  • Teach them to focus on the moment, not some theoretical future outcome
  • Demonstrate patience with them and teach them to be patient with themselves
  • Treat grades not as a judgment of value but as a snapshot of progress
  • Instill the idea that virtue is more important that what they produce
  • Don’t pressure them about following a certain life path; let them know they are supported whatever they choose to do in life
  • Help them understand that mastery is found in the process, not in the end product

One of the best parts about excellence, though, is that by focusing our efforts on the process, we usually wind up with a better end product as well! If we focus on the process, we get the end product thrown in as well; but if we focus only on the end product, we get neither the end product nor the joy of the process.

There is no magic bullet to “solve” teen insecurity; it’s something they simply must go through as part of maturing into adulthood. But with support and a focus on excellence instead of perfection, we can help guide our teens away from some of the anxious behaviors that come with perfectionism and guide them towards healthier patterns of development.


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