August 27th, 2018

Back to school –is your child trying too hard to be 'perfect'?

Many schools go back in the UK next week. If your child is starting school for the first time there are some ideas in this blog which will help you to prepare. Even if it’s not your child’s first year at school you should probably be thinking now about how to transition from holiday mode to school routines. There are some useful tips here.

I was talking to a journalist, Anna Tyzack, during the holidays about perfectionism for a piece she was writing for the Telegraph. It got me thinking about the number of parents who worry about their child’s perfectionist tendencies at school. Do you have a child who won’t put up their hand to answer a question because they might get the answer wrong? Or maybe your child labours over a story or drawing for hours only to screw it up because they’re not happy with it.

As your child is embarking on a new academic year are concerned about perfectionism or do you think it will spur your child on to greater achievements? Are you a proud perfectionist yourself? If you are worried about it is there anything you can do?

Last week GCSE results came out and I was struck by the different ways different children I knew received their results. One boy at a highly academic school was quietly satisfied with exceptional results (but was very keen to know if his 8s were nearly 9s) whereas another girl was over the moon excited with ‘merely good’ grades. Perfectionism can be a problem if it means we’re never content with what we achieve. You may well know adults like that. They are driven to achieve ever greater things, get better grades, better qualifications, better positions, but are never satisfied. They never believe that they are good enough.

Research conducted by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill [the University of Bath and York St John University respectively (Study Personality and Social Psychology Review 2015)] found that perfectionism is associated with a wide range of mental illnesses, including depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia, anorexia, insomnia, and even self-harm and suicidal ideation. They also found that rates of perfectionism are increasing, especially among young people and children.

The modern world is geared towards perfectionism. Our society is a highly individualistic one which places heavy emphasis on social comparison and competition, whether we’re talking about  accomplishments or looks. On a daily basis through advertising and social media (which provide platforms for us to put forward perfect versions of ourselves and our lifestyles) we are exposed to the idea that perfection is attainable and that our status and our value are judged by externally-set standards. Schools have of course become even more focused on comparative results with the introduction of league tables and many educators lament the resultant teaching to the test at the expense of a holistic education. Social media offers the possibility of comparisons and judgment about how we raise our children too. An innocent question often brings forth resounding judgment.

But perfection is an abstraction, an impossibility, and pursuing it is a route to unhappiness. Perfectionists, in their pursuit of success are often so focused on avoiding failure that it leads to procrastination. I know I delayed starting writing my book for years because of the notion that it had to be perfect. Perfectionists want to avoid mistakes and often find that they get less done because of their fears. They can become risk-averse. The ability to persevere even when things are going badly is a key element of success, and it's a quality that perfectionists often lack.

There is a difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection and parents can either contribute to perfectionist anxieties or encourage children to do their best and be happy with that. Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings and good parents do not require perfection of their children in everyday behaviour or in their schoolwork, sporting endeavours or artistic activities.

So what can parents do to relieve their children of the burden of perfectionism?

  1. Stop being perfectionists ourselves

What we model is very important so if our children see us beating ourselves up when we make a mistake they will learn that failure is unacceptable. If we give the appearance of perfection they will think they need to be perfect too. We need to consciously model the idea that making mistakes is normal, that it doesn’t diminish us as human beings and is often desirable if it means we learn from them. Point to famous people in sports, science, music and industry who have made many mistakes and not given up. Check out this video on You Tube.

  1. Encourage a growth mindset

You may be aware of Carol Dweck’s now famous work on growth vs fixed mindsets as a way of explaining attitudes toward intelligence and towards failure. Encourage a growth mindset by paying more attention to your child’s efforts, attitudes and strategies for learning as well as their improvements, rather than focusing on their results or grades. Pay attention to the intrinsic benefits and joys of whatever they’re learning, rather than an assessment of their performance. Do NOT call your child clever, or pretty. They need to know that we value them for much more than how they look, that they're courageous, that they're capable, that they are kind people, for so many other things than just the way they look. 

  1. Let go of blame

When something goes wrong, whether in ordinary behaviour or some aspect of performance seek not to judge or blame but to understand and to guide. Do not deal with the matter until everyone is calm and then use the mistakes process:

  • Acknowledge how your child feels about what has happened. Assume they feel bad even if they’re making a show of bravado.
  • Help your child admit what happened. What did they do that contributed to the problem? (Only possible if they are clear there is no judgment)
  • What can they do to make amends?
  • How should they alter their behaviour for the future? Do they need help with this?
  • Help them to accept that they’re human and will make mistakes. Move on.

Wishing you well for a non-perfect new school year.

Posted in: Mindset , mistakes , Perfectionism , Schooling





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