Wide eyed-Alex could pass-off as just another five-year-old who is ever so curious about the world around him. But for those who know Alex well, something else stands out. Alex loves to draw but when he is not happy with his work he often crumples or rips apart his drawing sheet. He often looks at his parents who are themselves self-proclaimed perfectionists. The creases on his mother’s brow cause Alex discomfort and he tosses aside another sheet and starts all over again. He sometimes grows impatient and angry, eventually giving up completely. But little signs of approval from his parents in the form of a nod or a smile lift his spirits.
Could Alex be your child? Unfortunately, we are a society that correlates good academic performance and extracurricular achievements to success. For most parents, getting their children to work on home-work assignments and tests can be a Herculean task. Parents secretly wish for a perfect child – self-motivated, sincere, hard-working and excellent in every area of life, be it academics or extra-curricular activities. This obsessive compulsive behaviour of parents pushes kids to want to excel at everything and to outperform others while at it. This then creates a pressure cooker situation; causing them to fall apart when someone else wins or when they fail to meet the high standards they or their parents had set.
What does perfectionism looks like in children?
- gets frustrated and gives up easily;
- gets anxious at the drop of a hat and is upset about making a mistake;
- procrastinates tasks and has difficulty completing tasks at hand;
- fears being looked down upon or facing embarrassment in public;
- is a low risk taker and fears trying out new things (lest he fail);
- does not have many friends and finds it difficult to make new friends;
- often complains of feeling isolated;
- gets hysterical when he misses the highest score in his class by a few marks; and
- blames himself when things don’t go the way he had planned.
Why is failure good?
Children apart from achieving the various milestones of physical developmental must also conquer some emotional milestones, a major one being the ability to handle failure. Many parents cling to the false notion that they are being ‘good parents’ by protecting their children from experiencing failure or by trying to make them ‘perfect’. Sadly, what these ‘well-meaning’ parents are doing is more damaging. They prevent their children from developing important skills that they will need to cope up with the peaks and valleys of life.
Kids brought up around high doses of perfectionism often end up having a skewed definition about what success truly means. Deepak Chopra writes in his book, The Seven Spiritual laws of Success, “The journey is more important than the destination.” Parents that help their children understand this basic philosophy build a foundation for a happier life for them. While moderated perfectionism may not cause problems, the unmoderated quest for perfection can cause an array of mental health disorders such as eating, anxiety and self-injury.
How to moderate your child’s (or your own) perfectionist nature:
Your love is undconditional: It is important that you evaluate the messages that you give to your child. Let your actions mirror your words. Tell them that high grades matter to you is okay, but if you constantly talk about how important they are, your child may feel burdened to perform and bring home laurels. Let them know that your love for them is unconditional and perennial and is not based on how they perform in school.
Your child is a part of you, not you: Do not derive your own sense of worth from your child’s accomplishments. Stop living your dreams through them.
My Hero, like me: Give them books and movies that make role models out of real people or introduce them to people who succeeded after a set of failures. For instance, if you are citing examples of famous people, you can talk about Albert Einstein who failed 999 times before making a path- breaking discovery. Don’t show him a hero he can’t be.
Let your kids make their own mistakes: The greatest gift parents can give their child along with roots is wings. Allowing children to explore their own path means allowing them to falter and fail. Allow mistakes. They offer a lifetime of lessons – resiliance, overcoming fear of failure, damage control etc. Recovering from mistakes gives the kids confidence to soar higher next time. Assist if you must but do not become their wings.
Watch what you say: “Wow, you worked so hard to learn that tough material. God luck for your test,” is more positive than “Don’t worry, I know you’ll get an A, you always do!” I’d also replace the word ‘mistake’ with ‘obstacle’ or ‘stumbling block’.
Make them follow this mantra: “Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” ― William Faulkner
Neha has a degree in Industrial Psychology and Counselling and has trained in Early Childhood Development. She leads multiple early education centres for the Aga Khan Development Network and writes on the subject in ‘The Lokmat Times’.