Perfection and The Freedom Journal

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Notes get sent home in her backpack. Notes from her teacher asking me to please help her speed up the process of writing; encourage her to move more quickly. I get assessment reports saying she is lagging behind the momentum of her class in her short moment story, and could I please invite her to hurry along. I am pulled aside by her teacher in the school hallway and she implores me to help her in some way to not be so obsessed with perfection but just to get words on a page. Oh, perfection, I know you too well.

There are two stories about me as a little girl that my kids love to hear my mom tell. One involves stealing candy, getting caught, and pee (I think that one I will leave vague) and the other is me at my bedroom desk laboring away at writing. But I wasn’t really laboring away at my story, I was laboring away with how each letter had to be printed perfectly – to my personally inflicted demanding standard. That’s not the part they find funny. It is this: when I failed to meet my high standard I would send my pencil flying through the air in a fit of rage and frustration. They laugh at that part with a long drawn out, “M-o-m!” while my mother shakes her head and says, “You wanted it all to be perfect. And you wonder where someone gets it from.” She nods toward my middle child who seemingly with all the encouragement, positive reinforcement, and invitation to keep up with the class cannot – will not – hurry, move more quickly, or set aside her obsession for perfection. In her internal narrative, every letter must be written nicely, every word spelled correctly, every space even, and each picture pristine. Perfection.

It is a mother’s curse to watch her child relive the same error they themselves have made. Can I get an ‘Amen’ please? I have watched her work at home on writing assignments – that the class has already completed – and have suffered through her tears, her cries of frustration, her pencil flying. How is it that she is made of the same stuff as me?

It took years for me to realize that perfection didn’t offer absolution. That my standard was simply mine alone, a kind of rule oriented enslavement that ultimately lacked not only joy but freedom. Freedom to make a mistake and not feel like a failure. Freedom to fail and not have it ruin me.

As I reflected on the years of learning and growth that enabled me to embrace that truth, I realized that I didn’t want years to go by for her – I wanted freedom for her now. That’s when we implemented The Freedom Journal.

Such a simple idea really. A place to be herself without any feedback, correction, or revising. Its just her on the page – pouring out words that represent what she thinks, reflecting her creative choice, all her loves and hates. She is free to pick whatever genre she wants – no confines on these pages – everything is her choice. So she writes a poem first, then a short story, retiring finally to poetry again. It is all good.

When she brought me her Freedom Journal the first time and sat beside me with four pages full in the timespan of 30 minutes I sat stunned. She read her first poem aloud, beaming, and then I almost did it – I almost corrected her spelling, her punctuation, her fast sloping handwriting – I almost ruined the whole thing.

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You see, The Freedom Journal is teaching us both a lesson. It gives her room to explore her writing skills without feeling pressured to produce in a certain way, or with a certain form. And because she is not turning it in for grading, she is free from the perfection standard she demands of herself for final drafts. How has it affected her life at school? She has grown in confidence. She moves a little more quickly. But mostly she comes home and disappears upstairs with a freshly sharpened pencil embracing freedom over and over again.

For me it has been another reminder that in a world full of demands, in my home and in my mothering I want to give my children the gift of freedom. Perfection straightjackets creativity, creates an impossible demand on the definition of ‘acceptable’, can lend to a lack of graciousness with others’ failures, and ultimately creates an impossible standard. Freedom engages creativity and allows both expression and grace.

The reminder that I don’t always have to be the ‘great corrector’ or the ‘always on teacher’ is a gift to the soul. So often playing the role of the ‘great corrector’ ruins everything and makes me a tiresome person to be around. My children need a soft place to land and I need to be the one who gives them space to be free, to make mistakes, to be heard. The Freedom Journal is a minuscule experiment that is reaping a huge reward.

So for the last four days in a row I have said, “Yes, read me more from your Freedom Journal.” Because the truth is, her journal is freeing me too.

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