In my last post, I made the case for preventing perfectionism in children, and got a slew of emails from people asking how to prevent perfectionism.
Kids today, especially upper-middle class kids, are under a lot of pressure to achieve. Kids who feel pressure to be perfect are prone to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. As parents we have a choice: pile on the pressure, or help them see that there is more to life—and to them—than their achievements. Here's how parents create perfectionist children:
This isn't rocket science: parents mold their children into perfectionists by wanting and expecting their children to be perfect. Since no child actually is perfect, when parents push for perfection, kids feel criticized.
Parents who are perfectionists themselves teach their children to be perfectionists indirectly. Are you overly concerned about making mistakes? Chances are your children will be, too. Wean yourself from perfectionism if you think you might be part of the problem (I'll post more about how later this week).
They make their approval contingent on achievement and performance. This is easy to do accidentally – it is classic fixed-mindset thinking. Parents who value their children's achievements more than their character tend to create perfectionists.
Even when children are doing very well, perfectionism-creators find faults: they raise an eyebrow at the one B on a report card full of A's, they point out the bad pitch in a game well-played. Praise kids for a job well done without pointing out what they could have done better. Even better, use only growth-mindset praise.
- Perfectionism-creators are unable to see the positive aspects of mistakes, failures, and jobs left undone, feeling that their children's poor performance will reflect badly on them. If you find yourself doing everything within your power to prevent your children's failures—bringing forgotten homework to school, staying up late to "help" rewrite a paper, manipulating the system to your child's advantage—take a step back and ponder whether you really want to prevent your children from learning to deal with challenges and mistakes themselves.
Sometimes parents do everything right and their kids turn out to be perfectionists anyway. Aside from being a perfectionist herself, my mother did very few of the things on that first list, but because she loved us so much and was so dedicated to our success, she protected us from making mistakes in every way she possibly could. Though I did unequivocally become a perfectionist over-achiever, my brother escaped this fate (he's merely very successful, fulfilled, and happy). The good news is that I seem to have kicked the habit – evidence that people are resilient, adaptable, and able to change.
The next couple of posts will give you even more tips for paving the way for both success AND happiness this school year. Next week I'll discuss how you can discourage "maximizing," which is a form of perfectionism, and teach "satisficing," — a goofy word for meeting expectations and feeling good about it.
My friend Kelly Corrigan—a New York Times best-selling author—is happy and successful, but not a perfectionist. She writes here about the things her parents did that made her at ease with making mistakes and accepting good enough as truly good enough. What did your parents do that discouraged perfectionism? What do you do with your children?
Step 2 for fostering success and happiness, but not perfectionism:
Accept that Achievement Doesn't Matter. Seriously.
- Teaching the Growth Mindset
- Achievement Doesn't Matter
- The Right Way to Praise Kids
- Let Your Kids Fail
© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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