Helping Children Overcome Perfectionism

This article is taken from writing by Michael Grose

Fear of making mistakes holds back more children and is a greater impediment to children reaching their full potential than any school funding issue that makes front-page news.  It is not lack of ability, opportunity or even laziness that holds many kids back.  Rather, it is a deep-seated unwillingness to expose themselves as temporary failures that really holds kids back and stops them really achieving their full potential.  This fear of failure is strongest amongst first born children.

There are three broad strategies parents and teachers can use when they deal with perfectionists. But first, you need to take them seriously.  Perfectionism is painful…the painful desire to ALWAYS be right.   If you are first born yourself, you probably understand the issue. If you are one of the younger children in your family,  you maybe thinking, “Why don’t this kid just loosen up?”  Read on.

The first strategy is to adopt a realistic attitude to mistakes.  In a way, it is about releasing pressure to perform to the highest standard all the time.  We should encourage our kids to make more errors, spell more words incorrectly, get some more sums wrong, make a mess sometimes when they write, break a dish or two as they unpack the dishwasher, set the table with the knife and fork upside down, leave marks on the floor when they wipe up the mess or forget to feed the cat once in a while.  This can be some parents’ worst nightmare for those who believe children should ALWAYS do their best.  Children benefit from being released from the pressure of not making mistakes.  WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME TO TRIED TO DO YOUR BEST ALL DAY LONG. When children learn that mistakes and “less than perfect jobs” are quite acceptable then they relax and are more likely to stretch themselves and try new areas of endeavor or use their own initiative.

The second strategy is to develop the “courage to be imperfect” in children.  The great psychologist Rudolph Dreikurs talked about this concept in his brilliant book: Happy Children.  He believed that people are motivated by either two forces: the desire to be superior or better than others or the desire to contribute or be useful.  Those motivated by the first force are never content because there will always be someone who can do a better job than them.  Those motivated by the latter find contentment and fulfillment not only because their contributions usually assist others but also because doing a perfect or terrific job does not obsess them.  Their satisfaction comes from helping not from achievement.

Dreikurs said: “We have to … realize that we are good enough as we are  because we never will be better regardless of how much we may know, how much more skill we may acquire, how much more status or money or what-have-you.  If we can’t make peace with ourselves as we are, we never will be able to make peace with ourselves.  And this requires the courage to be imperfect: requires the realization that I am no angel, that I am no superhuman, that I make mistakes, that I have faults: but I am pretty good because I don’t have to be better than others.  Which is a tremendous relief.  If you accept just being yourself, the devil of vanity, the golden calf of “my superiority” will vanish.  If we learn to function, to do our best regardless of what it is; out of the enjoyment of the functioning we can grow just as well, even better than if we would drive ourselves to be perfect-which we can’t be.  We have to learn to live with ourselves and the relationships of natural limitations and the full awareness of our strengths.

The third and most tangible strategy is to reduce the use of praise and increase the use of encouragement when working with children.  Praise focuses on the results of what children do.  It focuses on good marks in school, clean bedrooms, winning more in sports and the like.  Encouragement focuses more on improving, effort, contribution, confidence and enjoyment gained from doing an activity.  In effect, encouragement sends the following message that “I as an adult, am not fussed about the results of whatever you do, your contributions and activity is more important.” The amazing thing about encouragement is that if you focus on the process of what kids do the results will inevitably come.

Here’s the rub.  Perfectionists want praise.  They want to know how they measure up in the eyes of the significant adults in their lives.  However, they need encouragement.  So if you have a perfectionist in your life, they will nag you to praise them.  They will feel a little ripped off by the subtle shift to encouragement by hang in there. Any change in behavior takes some time for it to sink in and also to have the desired affect.

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