GUEST BLOG POST: Guarding Against Perfectionism in Our Children by Jill Rigby
We’ve all witnessed a child who makes a first attempt at a new skill only to fail. He wails in disbelief that he couldn’t accomplish the task perfectly, pushes aside the project, and walks away. Hopefully, we have also witnessed the child in the same scenario who comes back and tries again and again and again and again, until he gets it.
What is it that separates the child who gives up from the one who perseveres? That nasty little paralyzer called “perfectionism” – the need to succeed without failure, or as Webster’s defines it, “a disposition to regard anything less than perfection as unacceptable.”
Why do so many parents choose to set a goal of perfection (often unknowingly) before their children that cannot be reached?
You’ve witnessed the mom who says to her ten-year-old, average-size daughter, “No snacks for you. You’re getting a little plump around the edges.” Or the father who says to his son, “You’ll get it right next time,” after his son placed second in a race. Often parents who aggressively push their children propel them right into perfectionism.
Perfectionism can actually keep children from achieving their full potential. The message that comes through loud and clear to kids is that nothing less than perfect is of any value.
Do you catch yourself “helping” your son do an art project? Do you remake your daughter’s bed after she gives it her best attempt? Do you wipe the counter again after the kids clean the kitchen? I can ask you these probing questions because I committed these wrongs against my sons. I’m a classic perfectionist who has to work daily to overcome the irrational expectations I have of myself and others. Fortunately, before it was too late, I recognized (actually it was pointed out to me because I couldn’t see it for myself) that I was setting up my sons for failure not success in their early years. I changed my expectations quickly. I’m pleased to report they have become young adults with a healthy self-image.
How can you recognize your child is headed down the destructive path of perfectionism? Here are the warning signs. If your child:
• Has unreasonable personal expectations
• Is never satisfied with projects
• Is critical of others
• Has trouble making decisions
• Falls apart when criticized
• Is overly anxious, exhibiting physical symptoms
• Procrastinates out of fear of failure
• Is self-critical
Left unchecked in young children, perfectionist tendencies can lead to eating disorders, depression, cutting and anxiety disorders in teenage years and beyond.
If you recognized you or your child in this list, you can prevent perfectionism from becoming a lifelong malady in your child by:
• Stopping your “nothing is ever quite good enough” attitude.
• Accepting your child for who he is, and helping him grow into his potential.
• Setting realistic expectations and goals; such as, learning to play a musical instrument for pleasure, first; performance, second.
• Remembering what it was like to be your child’s age.
• Not worrying if the juice is spilled or there are misspelled words in your first-grader’s paper.
• Not forgetting that mishaps and mistakes are part of growing up.
• Sharing stories of times you “messed up” to reassure your child when she is disappointed by her own shortcomings.
• Share stories of Abraham Lincoln’s failures, Thomas Edison’s discover of 10,000 ways electricity didn’t work, and other folks who succeeded in spite of their less than perfect performance.
• Not comparing your child with siblings or classmates.
• Encouraging your child to be his best, and then letting him know that’s good enough for you.
• Not criticizing mistakes following a disastrous game, but getting your child the help he needs to improve.
Did you catch the antidote to perfectionism? Perseverance. As parents, one of our tasks in helping our children become all they are meant to be, must be to help them develop perseverance, forget about perfection.
Perseverance is striving to do your best, knowing you can never be perfect. Helping your child discover what they are capable of doing, and doing well, should be the goal, not striving for perfection according to standards determined by others, but striving to master a skill.
Perseverance will equip your child to succeed, in spite of imperfections!
We cannot insist on perfection in our children when we ourselves can never be perfect.
Jill Rigby is an accomplished speaker, columnist, television personality, family advocate, and founder of Manners of the Heart Community Fund, a nonprofit organization bringing a return of civility and respect to our society. Whether equipping parents to raise responsible children, encouraging the education of the heart, or training executives in effective communication skills, Jill’s definition of manners remains the same—an attitude of the heart that is self-giving, not self-serving. She is the proud mother of twin sons who testify to her contagious passion. Rigby is the author of Raising Respectful Children in a Disrespectful World (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Follow her at: