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Being Parents of a Perfectionist

For some parents it's a dream, for others a nightmare.

The Goddard School
Source: The Goddard School

The Coopers had been worried about their son’s pre-K teacher conference. Sam loved his grade, but he often arrived home in a foul mood, relating stories of his torn artwork (which he usually threw away), messy printing and unfinished projects, all because he couldn’t get it “the way he wanted it to look… the right way.” What they heard from the teacher surprised them both – “I wish I had more Sams that cared so much about their work. You are lucky parents.” That’s not the way it felt to them.

In his young mind’s eye, Sam found anything shy of perfection as simply unacceptable and therefore the root of misery. The Coopers felt they were loving parents who worked to not push Sam, given that he was doing a bang-up job himself. Still, they admitted to each other that they were proud that he cared so much about “getting it right” – for which they routinely praised him – and hoped it was a trait that would serve him well someday in the new global economy, in which they themselves were struggling to succeed. They often celebrated his achievements because it seemed to comfort and please him to “get it right.”

What they were missing by trying not to upset him on the road to perfection was that Sam was missing out big time on the things that would really teach him how to handle life down the road. Success emanates less from getting things right than from how one manages getting them wrong. Parents who are able to support their children to feel and think their way out of mistakes and dead ends help their children rely less on the “mistake-hiding rigidity” that is the hallmark of perfectionism and more on the effort and creative adventure of starting over—informed by what didn’t work before and the knowledge that the world did not implode. Here are three ways parents can help ease children off the perfectionist path.

  • When children insist something has to be done this one way “or else,” engage them in a conversation about alternative outcomes to imperfect events: “What did Mom think when her computer crashed and she couldn’t do her bills on time?” “What would Dad think if he ran out of gas on the way home?” Right: no apocalypse, and alternatives make a good story.
  • A child gets a puzzle that is too difficult but wants to try it anyway. Instead of saving it for when he or she is older, suggest you do it together and use it as a chance to build the child’s vocabulary of what is happening to their feelings as they struggle and fail: “This is a hard puzzle, isn’t it? Do you want a little help finding the piece, and then you can put it in? Tell me how it feels to do this together. I can see you are a good thinker and you really want to stick to it, even when it is hard. That’s so cool, I love that about you.”
  • Help children avoid the negative emotions of the “infinity report card” (one of my young patient’s labels for his perfectionism). Parents can monitor their kids’ “stuckness” and introduce playful interludes of deep breathing, music listening and/or book time on the couch to help the child’s chosen task feel more positive than obligatory when it’s resumed.