Preventing Perfectionism in the Next Generation

June 4, 2010
If you or your partner is a perfectionist (or if both of you are), how can you help your children strive for reasonable goals and accept the inevitable mistakes they will make as normal experiences in life, rather than see them as evidence that they are not worthy as a person?

NOTE: This is the fifth and last in a series of articles on Living With a Perfectionist.

Mandala of linesAre your children headed down the path of perfectionism because your partner (with perhaps some help from you) is pushing them in that direction? These days, when overindulgent parents are extraordinarily focused on their child’s future success with high expectations and competitive pressure, they unintentionally plant seeds for a weak sense of self and unrealistically high standards. Wanting outward approval, these children are vulnerable to the delusion that wealth, meeting the standards of others, and a position of power create happiness.

How can parents prevent perfectionism and still encourage success? First and most important, make certain your children know that they are absolutely loved no matter how many A’s they bring home, that they don’t have to do anything to earn your love. Help them accept their mistakes as opportunities to learn, not evidence they aren’t good enough. Give them lots of space and time to play as they choose, without expecting every moment to be filled with “useful” activities. Encourage them to first try to figure out problems by themselves and then to ask questions when they are stumped.

To the greatest extent possible, see that your children attend a good public or private school. Beyond that, help them begin to discover the pleasure of being as responsible for themselves as they possibly can. I can guarantee you that being responsible for themselves will come sooner than you might now imagine.

When children are young, they need help getting to school on time and doing their homework. However, before very long you need to step back and recognize that waking up in time to get to school is their responsibility. Homework is their responsibility. Deciding which extra-curricular activities will enrich their lives is their choice. And selecting a career or training program is theirs to make.

Clearly you have an interest in their lives in and out of school. Knowing what’s going on and why they make the choices they make is an important part of being parents. Adding your input is obviously helpful. Discipline is essential. But in my work with adults who feel strangely empty and anxious, I often find that their parents didn’t help them learn how to stand on their own two feet and to be responsible for themselves. By giving their children everything they wanted and always being there to catch them before they fell, they didn’t have the chance to learn from their own mistakes.

Here is a small thing, but it is often a signal that children feel they must be perfect: they ask for extra time to finish a project because they couldn’t make it “good enough” within the time frame everyone one was given. They want to add more colorful pages or illustrations, even if they will only add 5 points for “artistic presentation” on a 60 point project. When parents don’t point out the unfairness of that request, and when teachers allow extra time, the child can feel “proud” of getting a good grade without recognizing that if everyone were to have more time, others would also get better grades. The extra credit was courtesy of extra time.

After all, when your children become adults and have a job that requires them to finish a report for a three o-clock meeting, they won’t be given an extra two hours to make it better. They’ll have to know what is most important to include, and what can be left out. Learning to stop at “good enough” is one of the best lessons you can teach your children.

My best friend in college did not get all “A’s” but was satisfied in doing the best she could. I felt I had to bring home the best grades and in one final exam I even cheated, I am now sorry to say, and once asked for an extension on a test, claiming I had a cold. The truth is that I had had a cold, but I was certainly over it enough that I could have taken the test. I wouldn’t have done as well as I did by having extra time to study, but getting a better grade seemed so important at the time.

Today, after a highly successful career as an educator, my friend is widely respected and has mentored many teachers and administrators and teaches graduate students. She even has a school named after her! Good grades didn’t get her there. She got there because she was resourceful, resilient, compassionate, and had a strong sense of self.

As I come to the end of my comments in these five posts on the blog about living with a perfectionist, let me say that I have wanted them, and anything else I write, to be well-written. The better I write, the more likely you are to understand what I want to say. However, if I realize after it has gone to print that I might have said something more effectively, or if I left out something I wish I had included, I won’t believe that who I am at my core is flawed. As a recovering, rather than practicing, perfectionist, I know that my value as a human being is not dependent on whether I do everything 110%.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to read the rest of
the Living With a Perfectionist series.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

5 thoughts on “Preventing Perfectionism in the Next Generation

  1. Perfectionism is itself a barrier to change and to effective efforts; e.g., the perfectionist may delay decisions or actions due to the high self-demands (which may have come from others’ expectations (construed expectations)) or a demanding milieu earlier along the developmental trail). It can also lead to hopelessness (“I can never measure up”). So, I’m glad you are discussing it. I worked with gifted students as a teacher for many years, and some were certainly hampered by an inner sense of perfectionism. Indeed, one workshop I attended suggested that there is an underlying link between intellectual giftedness and perfectionism . . . (I don’t know if this is the case or not; I suspect the roots of perfectionism are complex and perhaps even unique to individuals).
    Thanks for your work.


    1. Steve,

      I, too, don’t know why giftedness and perfectionism is linked, but I have sometimes recognized that connection and have a theory about it. When a parent recognizes that a child is bright, the child is praised for her accomplishments. The child may then equate praise with “doing” rather than for simply being herself, which happens to include talent. If I do well, the child reasons, that must mean I am accepted. Consequently, a pattern develops in which the child strives for perfection because that will validate her definition of being okay. Does that sound reasonable to you?


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