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“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”
– Dr. Harriet Braiker
Is your child self-critical and easily frustrated? Does she/he feel uncomfortable with new challenges or particularly difficult tasks? If so, your child may be a perfectionist.
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:
- The first type is acquired by excellence-seekers. They push themselves because they are intrinsically motivated to achieve. This type is healthy and is associated with a growth mindset.
- The second type is acquired by someone who strives for perfection in order 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 is showing signs of unhealthy perfectionism, try using these strategies to help him worry less and accomplish more.
1. 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 himself 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. Perfectionism, on the other hand, 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, she/he will strive to be “perfect” in order 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 “A’s” and one “B,” don’t focus on the “B.” Pushing your child to achieve perfection can have a negative impact on both confidence and performance.
Help your child set goals and standards that are reachable with effort, and don’t push the impossible standard of perfection.
2. 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 he can’t do something or hasn’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 kids (it is available as part of our Growth Mindset Printables Kit 2). The printable also includes the "goal ladder" technique which we explain in this article, in more detail.
You can help your child understand the power of yet by using the following 3-STEP STRATEGY:
- When your child is ready to work on a task, ask to create a draft or a prototype first. This allows your child to try, learn from his errors, revise, and improve.
- When she completes a draft, acknowledge what he has done well. At the same time, encourage excellence (not perfection) by saying that you don’t think this is her best YET.
- Next, give very specific feedback about what your child can do to improve. This feedback is most effective if you focus on only ONE aspect of the assignment or task at a time. For example, if you’re giving your child feedback on her writing, focus on her ideas first, then focus on organization, then spelling and grammar, and so on.
Your child will get excited about the improvement she makes, and she’ll learn that she doesn’t have to focus on being “perfect” the first time—or at all. This will also teach her that continued effort results in progress, success, and increased confidence.
This 3-step strategy is also excellent for teachers to use in the classroom.
3. 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 own shortcomings, he normalizes imperfection for his kids. If his children later experience 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.
4. Emphasize the Fun
In a recent study, a research team from George Washington University used a method called concept mapping to map “fun” in youth sports. They found that winning is NOT an essential element of having fun in sports.
Kids 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 questions like,
“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 she is learning and the areas in which she’s improving. Focus on the process of learning and the enjoyment of this process instead of stressing achievement alone.
Although this research applies to sports, the same can be true in other areas like academics and the arts. Highlight enjoyment and learning in the way you question and praise your child, and you’ll encourage her to stray away from a perfectionistic mindset.
5. 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 there are tools he can use 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. He can then replace the negative thought with a more positive one, or with 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 a child focuses on what he can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch to combat anxiety or feelings of doubt and blame.
More Helpful Strategies for Dealing with Perfectionism
- Build in downtime. It’s common today for parents to overschedule their kids and push them into all sorts of activities. Make sure 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 don’t only demonstrate excitement, interest, or pride 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 mindful of how you express criticism or frustration. Help your child evaluate his own performance and talk about how he can improve.
- Be supportive. Ask your child what he needs in order to achieve what he wants. Maybe he needs more sleep or more help from you.
- Talk about learning from mistakes. Remind your child that everyone makes mistakes and that we learn more from our mistakes and failures than we do from our successes.
If your child is too hard on himself, has unreachable expectations, and avoids or procrastinates challenges, he may be a perfectionist. Luckily, you can work with him to develop a healthier attitude about achievement by trying the following;
- Encourage high standards, but be careful not to push (or appear to push) perfection.
- Teach your child “the power of yet” using multiple drafts and specific feedback for assignments and tasks.
- Normalize imperfection by telling your child about your own mistakes and setbacks, and ask him for advice.
- Emphasize fun and enjoyment, not just achievement.
- Help your child learn to recognize, accept, and address negative thoughts.
Eventually, your child will grow to understand that perfection isn’t possible for anyone, and that’s perfectly okay.