As parents, we want to help our children succeed, yet that can be a difficult challenge. The stakes seem to get higher and higher and we think about how to set them up for success earlier and earlier. Getting your child into the right preschool can be as competitive and fraught as applying to college. (Yes, in some places, like Manhattan, there are actually preschool admissions coaches.) In academics as well as in sports or other extra-curricular pursuits, high expectations can lead to unintended consequences, like perfectionism.
Is perfectionism bad?
“When young children feel put on display and praised for their achievements, they naturally conclude that their value as people lies in what they can produce,” writes Joan Franklin Smutny, director of The Center for Gifted at National-Louis University in Evanston, Illinois. “The danger of perfectionism is that it disrupts children’s natural curiosity to learn and robs them of the joy they used to feel in the presence of a new discovery, inquiry, or invention.”
Smutny explains that perfectionism in children doesn’t lead to success. In fact, it creates a fear of failure that can result in:
- Reluctance to try new things
- Focus on mistakes rather than on what was done well
- Focus on the end result, rather than on the process and what was learned
When perfection is the goal, perspective and balance can get seriously off kilter. The reward for meeting high expectations is relief, rather than elation or joy, and, on the flip side, if perfectionist children don’t succeed they aren’t merely disappointed, they are devastated. “[They] view failure as a voracious beast that stalks them every moment of every day. If these children stop for even a moment’s rest, they will be devoured by failure and that is simply unacceptable,” writes Jim Taylor, Ph.D. Because the only way to truly succeed is to risk failure, he adds, by avoiding any chance of failing, children can miss out on achieving their full potential. (Taylor, 2009)
Where does this drive for perfection come from?
Many of us are motivated by the fear of looking bad or showing our vulnerabilities. We want to be accepted. And we don’t want to be, or be perceived as, bad parents. In our efforts to protect our children from failure, we could, inadvertently, be taking the joy out of their lives. Are you one of those parents who takes over your child’s science fair project so it will win, yet ends up leaving your child out of the process? Learning, growing, and figuring out life is messy, yet, we often go to great lengths to help our children avoid the mess— and the sadness, hurt and disappointment that come with it.
Taylor says perfectionism in kids comes from parents’ words, emotions and actions that lead children to equate perfection and love— for example, when parents lavish praise, love, and attention on their children when they succeed, but withhold it (or express anger, resentment, or disappointment) when their child doesn’t meet their perfectionist expectations. Some parents, he explains, unintentionally model perfectionism by their competitiveness, by only considering certain things acceptable in various aspects of their lives (such as their homes or their careers), and by responding negatively to their own mistakes or failures. “These parents unwittingly communicate to their children that anything less than perfection won’t be tolerated in the family,” says Taylor. Lastly, he says, some parents project their own flaws onto their children and, rather than fix the flaws in themselves, they give and withhold love based on how their children display or don’t display those flaws.
How to help perfectionist kids
If you recognize perfectionist tendencies in your child— even in just one or two areas— consider these strategies from to help him or her regain that balance and perspective:
- Let him or her know it’s okay to make mistakes.
Share your own stories of when things didn’t go well. Let him or her know that you understand the frustration, and suggest ways to get past it, like taking a break, coming at the problem from a new angle, or asking their teacher for help.
- Set an example.
Be aware of the messages you send. Notice when you are overly self-critical or react badly to a situation that has gone wrong, then take a different tack. Letting your children see you handle adversity gracefully will give them the confidence to do the same.
- Praise efforts, not grades.
Avoid setting unrealistic standards that pit your child against others (siblings, friends, even yourself). Be clear that you love and appreciate your child for who he or she is and what he or she accomplishes, regardless of how it measures up to anyone else.
- Let kids be kids.
Make sure your child has the time and space to do things that are just fun and unstructured. Not everything has to be scored or graded, or have a clearly defined purpose.
Can perfectionism be a good thing?
Dr. Jeff Szymanski, author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook, likes some things about perfectionism, such as the fact that it is often accompanied by attention to detail, organization, a clear sense of the big picture, and the expectation that others will work to their potential. But, even as a perfectionist, he recognizes that things don’t always work out the way he expects —and that can lead to frustration. The key for him, he says, was “to better understand when and under what circumstances perfectionism worked and when it backfired.” (Szymanski, 2012)
When talking to your children, it’s important to recognize the positive attributes that come with perfectionism (such as the desire to strive for excellence and do your best), while encouraging them to let go of the negative aspects that add stress, limit creativity and discourage risk-taking. Mistakes, or coming up short of the expectations kids set for themselves, or the expectations they believe are expected of them by parents, teachers, coaches, and the like, shouldn’t be perceived as some mortal enemy, waiting to strike in the face of an unexpected school grade, less-than-perfect dance recital, or sports game. These experiences are a part of the life experiences that unites us all – kids, teens, adults – as an imperfect species.
For more information on perfectionism and how it can affect kids, or if you are wondering if you’re encouraging this in your own kids, contact us at the Access Center at 303-867-4600 to be matched with one of our many therapists that facilitate family therapy.
Smutny, J.F. (n.d.) Preventing Perfectionism in Children. National PTA. Retrieved on May 9, 2016, from https://www.pta.org/programs/content.cfm?ItemNumber=1769
Taylor, J. (2009) Parenting: Raise Excellent — Not Perfect – Children. Psychology Today. Retrieved on May 9, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/200911/parenting-raise-excellent-not-perfect-children
Parents (n.d.) 6 Strategies for Soothing a Perfectionist. Scholastic.com. Retrieved on May 9, 2016, from https://www.scholastic.com/parents/resources/article/homework-project-tips/6-strategies-soothing-perfectionist
Szymanski, J. (2012) The Perfectionism Paradox. drjeffszymanski.com. Retrieved on May 9, 2016, from https://drjeffszymanski.com/blog/the-perfectionism-paradox