What is perfectionist parenting?
The dictionary defines perfectionism as the refusal to accept any standard short of flawless. By extrapolation, perfectionist parenting is a child-rearing doctrine where parents set unrealistically high expectations for their children. Whether it’s a hundred percent in every test, a win in every game, or perfect behavior at all times, anything less than the best is deemed unacceptable.
Unlike authoritarian parents, not all perfectionist parents are harsh. Many are loving and nurturing, too. Yet they model their perfectionistic tendencies through an obsessive zeal towards their own personal and professional goals, and by defining their self-worth by the sum of their life’s accomplishments alone.
Derogatory effects of perfectionist parenting
As a perfectionist-in-remission myself, I have, until recently, failed to see my perfectionist tendencies as a character flaw. But once I started observing how my verbal and non-verbal cues were impacting my five-year-old son, it became apparent that perfectionism is detrimental to raising mentally strong and resilient children. Here’s why:
Perfectionist parents set lofty goals. The children, either, manage to achieve those goals (a “success”) or they fall short (a “failure”). This binary thinking leads to excessive self-criticism, second guessing actions, and a crippling fear of failure. There is no middle ground, no room for celebrating improvements, personal bests, or hard work.
This attachment of worth to outcome rather than to the journey leads to low self-esteem. Some children may become so demotivated that they’re afraid to try new things altogether. This resignation leads to a vicious cycle of failure by non-action.
When perfectionist children do manage to achieve success, they may feel like they simply got lucky. Such children are in a constant panic of the next test, which might expose them as imposters. This deep-seated anxiety is the root cause of unhappiness in them even (and especially) when they are at the top of their games.
Perfectionists have a tendency to disregard their physical and emotional well-being in their quests to succeed. If perfectionism remains unchecked and attains neurotic levels, it could be the source of a hoard of physical and mental disorders, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and even suicide.
Is your child a perfectionist in the making?
The derogatory effects noted above don’t happen overnight. So how can you identify whether your young child is at a risk of developing these tendencies before it’s too late? Here are some tell-tale signs:
Obsession with flawlessness
If a child suffers a meltdown every time things deviate by an iota from the plan, then chances are you have a perfectionist in the making.
Lack of sportsmanship
Being a sore loser is another classic sign. If your child is fiercely competitive, focused on the scorecard above everything else, and hates losing, he may be tending towards perfectionism.
An all-or-nothing approach to challenges
Because perfectionists have an inherent need to be right the first time, they may postpone doing things until they are a hundred percent sure they will succeed.
Excessive self-criticism and difficulty letting go
Berating oneself, getting frustrated when faced with roadblocks, having meltdowns, or finding it difficult to let “perceived” negative outcomes go are all signs of a perfectionist in the making.
Techniques to curb perfectionism in your child
Small children, being plastic, can be easily molded in their habits with conscious and committed effort. Here are some techniques that have worked for us:
Do a self-assessment and see if you are only showing them the shiny bits of your personality and glossing over the areas where you are struggling. If it’s a yes, then change your narrative.
Acknowledge your blunders. Let them know, repeatedly, that you (and for that matter no one) is perfect, and nobody gets it right the first time. Show them your failures with as much love and care as you show them your successes. Model for them how to be a graceful loser when things do go wrong.
Embrace mistakes as part of learning
The one thing you have to keep emphasizing with perfectionist kids is that it’s normal to make mistakes.
Make room for errors. Give them ample opportunities to build their “failure muscle” by playing games of chance. Tell them stories about famous “failures,” like Rowling, Edison etc., and remind them, using historic examples, how some mistakes can lead to fortunate serendipities.
There’s a shloka in Bhagavata Gita which, loosely translated, means, “You have a right to your work only and never to its fruit.” This segregation between work and outcome is the core wisdom that you must pass to your children. Celebrate hard work irrespective of the outcome, even when the results don’t bolster your sense of false parental ego.
Changing your vocabulary, body language, and facial expressions are crucial when it comes to combatting perfectionism. You must try to remove the positive and negative connotations from success and failure, and redefine them if needed.
When your child comes home with a scorecard that says 97, don’t look disappointed about the “missing” 3. If he, himself, is feeling unhappy about not getting the perfect score, remind him that the scorecard, in no way, reflects his real knowledge about the subject. As long as he is learning and getting better with time, the results are immaterial.
Address concerns from the beginning
It may seem easy to brush off children’s concerns as non-issues. But when a child is in the throes of anxiety for an impending exam, don’t undermine her worry. Empathize and talk about it instead.
Addressing concerns from the start and reminding kids that nothing catastrophic will happen if they don’t succeed helps to nip fear in the bud. With time, this alters their perspective and they learn to self-talk themselves out of their anxiety.
Your child is who he is. As easy as it seems to accept this, every day, parents disregard this universal truth in favor of culturally revered perfectionist ideals. Our job is to push back as hard as we can and keep loving our children in their uniqueness.
If your child is a happy “average” student or a non-athlete, don’t force him to be “above average” or an athlete. Encourage him, sure. But encourage him to do his best and be his best – not the societal standard of the best.
Balance excellence with failure
This is not to say that you should not motivate your children to excel. You must. However, striving for excellence should never be confused with becoming perfect. Grit, focus, determination, and hard work are all great qualities to be nurtured, but a healthy respect for failure and the ability to be a lifelong learner should be given equal weight.