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“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”
– Dr. Harriet Braiker
To many people, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. After all, what’s wrong with setting high standards and pushing yourself to improve?
In reality, perfectionism can be unhealthy and damaging, especially for young children.
Dr Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, defines two different types of perfectionism:
2. The second type is those who strive for perfection to avoid judgment and appear perfect to others. This type is associated with a fixed mindset and causes people to be self-critical, anxious, and quick to give up.
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The excellence-seekers generally achieve more, are happier, and feel inspired. The fixed mindset perfectionists are likely to procrastinate challenges or avoid them entirely for fear of failure. Ultimately, they hold themselves back from the success they desire.
If your child shows signs of unhealthy perfectionism, try using these strategies to help them worry less and accomplish more.
Encourage high standards, not perfection
Helping your child avoid perfectionism doesn’t mean you should have low standards. Encourage your child to strive for excellence and hold themself to high standards, but don’t emphasize perfection.
Psychologist Randy Frost, a professor at Smith College, has studied perfectionism for decades. While he cautions against pursuing perfection, he also points out, 'Most people who are successful set very HIGH standards for themselves. They tend to be happy'.
Miriam Adderholdt, author of 'Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good'? seconds this opinion. 'There’s a difference between excellence and perfectionism'.
Excellence involves enjoying what you’re doing, feeling good about learning, and gaining confidence. On the other hand, perfectionism results in always finding mistakes, no matter how well you’re doing. Striving for excellence can be motivating, but striving for perfection is ultimately demoralizing.
Understand this distinction, and convey it to your child as well. Children take cues from their parents when it comes to perfectionism: If your child feels you expect perfection, they will strive to be 'perfect' to gain your approval.
Avoid using the word 'perfect' altogether, even as praise. This can cause children to feel they MUST achieve at an impossibly high level. If, for example, your child brings home a report card with all As and one B, don’t focus on the B. Pushing your child to achieve perfection can hurt both confidence and performance.
Help your child set goals and standards that are reachable with effort and don’t push the impossible perfection standard.
Teach your child the power of ‘yet’
Another way to combat perfectionism is to teach your child about 'the power of yet'. When your child says they can’t do something or haven’t achieved something, chime in with those three letters: 'YET!'
The power of yet is all about believing you can improve, and you can achieve your goals and dreams. But success doesn’t happen overnight. Accomplishing something requires time, effort, mistakes, setbacks, practice, etc. (You can use our 'Success Iceberg' poster to explain this concept to children.)
Use our printable 'My Power of YET' to practice this with your children (it is available as part of our Growth Mindset Printables Kit PDF). The printable also includes the 'goal ladder' technique which we explain in this article, in more detail.
Be an example of someone who’s not perfect
Children who are perfectionists often believe that other people—especially the adults in their lives—are perfect.
Teach your child not to strive for the impossible standard of perfection by doing the same. When you make mistakes or experience setbacks, don’t engage in self-criticism or negative talk in front of your child.
Instead, ask your child for advice.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant explains that when he experiences setbacks, he asks his children for input and advice. By talking about his shortcomings, he normalizes imperfection for his children. If his children later share similar struggles, Grant reminds them of the advice they gave to him.
By showing your child that you aren’t perfect and you’re okay with that, you’ll help him develop a healthy attitude about achievement as well.
Emphasize the fun
In a recent study, a research team from George Washington University used concept mapping to map 'fun' in youth sports. They found that winning is not an essential element of having fun in sports.
Children rated factors like positive coaching, being a good sport, trying hard, team friendships, and learning and improving as far more important in terms of 'fun'.
Next time you pick your child up from practice, ask 'Did you have fun today'? instead of 'How many goals did you score today'? or 'How did you do today'? This shows that you care more about your child enjoying the activity than about winning or achieving perfection.
When you do talk to your child about performance, emphasize the new skills they are learning and the areas in which they’re improving. Focus on the process of learning and the enjoyment of this process instead of solely stressing achievement.
Although this research applies to sports, the same can be true in other areas, like academics and the arts. Highlight enjoyment and learning how you question and praise your child, and you’ll encourage them to stray away from a perfectionistic mindset.
Recognize negative thoughts
Teach your child to recognize negative thoughts and the inner voice that demands perfection. Remind your child that it’s okay to have these thoughts, but they can use tools to address them.
For young children, you can use the 'balloon technique'. Tell your child to catch self-critical or negative thoughts, then imagine blowing them into a balloon and letting it go. They can then replace the negative thought with a more positive one or an affirmation like, 'I’m doing my best'.
You can also play the Five Senses Game to help your child refocus and learn to be in the moment. This is when children focus on what they can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch to combat anxiety or feelings of doubt and blame.
More helpful strategies for dealing with perfectionism
- Allow for downtime. It’s common for parents to overschedule their children and push them into all sorts of activities. Ensure your child also has time each day to relax, recharge, and not worry about achievement.
- Demonstrate unconditional love. Ensure your child knows that your love isn’t conditional on performance. Go beyond just saying this; make sure you’re not demonstrating excitement, interest, or pride only when your child accomplishes something.
- Be mindful of your criticism. Children worry about their parents withdrawing approval when they disappoint or get something wrong. So be aware of how you express criticism or frustration. Help your child evaluate their performance and talk about how they can improve.
- Be supportive. Ask your child what they need to achieve what they want. Maybe they need more sleep or more help from you.
- Talk about learning from mistakes. Remind your child that everyone makes mistakes — we learn more from our mistakes and failures than we do from our successes.
If your child is too hard on themself, has unreachable expectations, and avoids challenges, they may be a perfectionist. Luckily, you can work with him to develop a healthier attitude about achievement. Eventually, your child will grow to understand that perfection isn’t possible for anyone, and that’s perfectly okay.