Practice Makes Permanent, Not Perfect


Previously we explored how crucial it is to study our art form.  Since there is no formal preparation or training required for parenting, it’s up to us to seek the information and experience necessary to become the parents our children need.  We can only do what we know, so the more we know, the more we can do. Let’s consider the next effective practice of artists and its implications for parenting as art: Artists practice.  They do and redo. They try, erase, and try again.  They are constantly striving to achieve excellence.  

The underlying message here is that artists expect to make mistakes.  They give themselves permission not to get it right the first time. They assume that accomplishing a great work is going to require great effort including alterations, corrections, and revisions.

Nevertheless, artists don’t begin painting or sculpting without first making sketches. Authors don’t publish books without editing. Orchestras don’t hold concerts, dancers don’t have recitals, casts don’t produce plays, and singers don’t perform without first rehearsing.   While they may accept the inevitability of mistakes, artists clearly attempt to minimize their occurrence in the final product by engaging in purposeful practice.

Having grown up in a household where the platitude, “Practice makes perfect,” was routinely uttered, it’s not surprising that I adopted the same cliche.  (Note: Perfect is defined as flawless, without fault, without error.) However, I recall the occasion when my older son enlightened me. We were in the car on our way home from a violin lesson. I was extolling the importance of practice declaring ‘practice makes perfect,’ when he announced, “Not necessarily, Mom. My teacher says, ‘Practice makes permanent, not perfect.” It was one of those eye-opening, obvious statements that I had never considered.  

We had a meaningful conversation about how if you practice something incorrectly it becomes just as permanent as practicing it correctly.  We questioned whether or not there really is such a thing as perfect. The more we talked, the more it seemed that perfect is relative. More often than not, perfect is used to describe something that is exactly what we wanted or something that happens just the way we expected.  Whether or not that makes it perfect is debatable. We concluded that excellence is a more realistic goal.

Practicing for the purpose of continuous improvement is a worthwhile objective in any aspect of life.  The most we can ever hope to achieve is our best. But our best can get better, with practice. On the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s recording of “So it Goes” with John Denver, you can hear the audio technician ask John Denver whether this is a take or just practice. John Denver replies, “They’re all practice.”  

In life, practice and mistakes go hand in hand.  Hopefully the more we do of the former, the fewer there are of the latter.   Sitting on my desk is a framed copy of a Family Circle cartoon in which the grandmother is telling her grandson, “If you’re afraid you’ll make a mistake, you won’t make anything.”  The greatest failure is failing to prepare and failing to try. And the worst mistake we can make is one from which we fail to learn anything.

How do we adopt the artist’s commitment to practice and acceptance of mistakes in our parenting?  First of all, we admit to ourselves that most of what we do as parents is practice. We try something and if it gets the desired response from our kids, we use it again.  Along the way we make mistakes. Owning up to our mistakes, identifying why they were mistakes, accepting responsibility for our actions, apologizing to our kids for them, and attempting to do better are all part of practicing the art of parenting.  If we don’t think our kids know we make mistakes, we’re mistaken. And if we believe they’ll lose respect for us if we admit them, we’re wrong.

Secondly, we must extend the same attitude toward practice and mistakes to our children.  They are practicing, too. They are going to make mistakes. If we can help them learn to recognize and accept responsibility for their mistakes while they are young, when the results are less serious, we can help them learn to avoid mistakes that carry more severe consequences as they get older.  Avoiding overreacting or punishing based on knee-jerk reactions go a long way toward accomplishing the desired outcome.

If we want our children to seek excellence in all aspects of their lives, we must emphasize the value of practice.  At the same time we must teach them not to be afraid of making mistakes or of being wrong. The best way to do this is by example.  One of the most important things we can practice, is what we preach!


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