With the arrival of September, school begins---and for many children, especially adolescents, pressure to achieve also accelerates. In many families, the new school year focuses on teens building a perfect college application, with top grades and test scores, as well as stellar extracurricular activities. As parents struggle with how best to motivate their children to succeed, they would do well to read the article in the September 1, 2018 Wall Street Journal by Jennifer Wallace, entitled The Perils of the Child Perfectionist.
To elicit their child’s best effort, many parents set a high bar for achievement. Some, however, set a standard of near-perfection, pushing their children to become perfectionists. As Wallace points out, “Unlike hardworking people who enjoy striving for lofty goals and cope well with setbacks, perfectionists aim for high standards in order to demonstrate their worth to others, and then are brutally critical of themselves when they fall short.” They’re always chasing a carrot which they can never catch because there’s always something better out there. And they become acutely aware of how they’re doing relative to their peers.
As Wallace also points out, perfectionism can lead to serious mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and even suicidal thoughts. And, according to a major research study, perfectionism has risen quite significantly over the past few decades, by as much as 30 percent.. “Researchers point to several contributing factors, including more unrealistic expectations and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.” I can’t help but wonder if this increasing perfectionism isn’t a major factor in the equally significant rise in teen depression, anxiety and suicide.
So how do we parents avoid making perfectionists of our children? The key is unconditional love for your child, something I stressed repeatedly in my book, Six-Word Lessons for Intentional Parenting. We can help and encourage our kids to succeed, but we must always avoid the message that we won’t love them if they fall short. And we need to avoid the pitfall of confusing our child’s success with our own.
When I was growing up, my parents set very high standards and made it clear that my success reflected—whether well or poorly—on them. I felt their love was conditioned on my performance and I became, naturally, a perfectionist. The tendency to set standards for myself too high and then fault myself for not achieving them is something I fought for decades. I like to think I have healthier attitudes and expectations at this point in my life, but I have to confess that my perfectionist tendencies still occasionally crop up.
So how do we encourage a child’s best performance without driving them to perfectionism? As one researcher says in the Wall Street Journal article, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting kids to strive to be the best that they can be, but parents need to be careful how they communicate that desire: what they praise, how they praise” and we need to make clear that we have unconditional love and affection for our children, no matter what their level of achievement. We need to be careful of the messages we send with things like “I want to see straight A’s on your report card” or by withholding praise, or event comment, for a less-than-perfect performance.
There are healthy ways to encourage high performance without creating problems. As one psychologist quoted in the article says, “When it comes to pushing a child, a parent’s energy should be spent on encouraging good study habits, not focusing on shiny outcomes.” Set standards for how the homework gets done—tackling it early in the afternoon when the child is freshest with no electronics or distractions—rather than for the homework grade itself. Parents can also put grades in context: a bad grade doesn’t predict the child’s future performance or alter their parents’ love for them.
So as school begins, don’t be afraid to encourage your children to set high standards for themselves. Support them in developing good study habits and teach them to be proud of their achievements. But always let them know that your love is unconditional, through both words and actions. As the article concludes, “We teach a child to see themselves not as a grade or a performance but as a whole and complex person when we as parents embrace the whole and complex person they are today.”
Mary Waldmann's expertise as a speech writer and media expert spans over 30 years including among other roles Public Affairs Director for the US Department of Commerce during the Reagan Administration. She is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Winning with Today's Media , Six-Word Lessons for Intentional Parenting, and Six-Word Lessons for Compelling Speeches.
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