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Little Perfectionists

Perfectionist (noun): a person who demands perfection of himself, herself, or others

Perfect (adj.): excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement

Many parents who worry about their child’s focus and work ethic fall in one of two camps:

(1) I’m worried my child is a perfectionist; he gets so upset when he doesn’t get something just right!

(2) I’m worried my child has no drive or ambition. She doesn’t even want to try! She’d rather take the easy route….every time!

Here’s the surprising truth….kids in both of these categories often struggle with the exact same fear.

Fear of failing at a task is a very common obstacle for young children (and for us big grown-ups as well). And though we’re discovering more and more traits we’re born with each day, fear of failure is not one of them.

Now, we’re certainly born with a temperament that could lead us to perfectionism, but the messages we get from the world can either ease those perfectionist tendencies or encourage and solidify them.

Why avoid perfectionism? The idea that star high school athletes and straight-A students got there from being perfectionists is just not true. They’re driven, focused, and ambitious…but typically not perfectionists.

Students who are stuck in perfectionism tend to perform under their abilities because of all the stress hormones coursing through their system. There is also a higher risk of depression and anxiety in perfectionist kids and adolescents…which doesn’t help boost performance either.

Students who work hard and are dedicated, but also know when to say “good enough,” perform best. These students also know that sometimes they don’t make the goal, or they don’t get the “A,” but that doesn’t mean anything about them as a person. It just means they should study harder and try again.

When I was teaching I noticed every year I always had a few “mastery kids” – my name for children that weren’t big fans of practicing a task. They would choose to hang back and watch, or outright refuse to participate, until they were feeling like they could nail it.

Now these kids aren’t perfectionists…yet. But they could get there with parents or teachers that are achievement-focused rather than growth-focused….. 

Dr. Christine Carter wrote a great book which includes a look at numerous ways we can help kids avoid becoming perfectionists. One of her central points is about the difference between offering achievement focused vs. growth-focused praise.

In “Raising Happiness, 10 Simple Steps For More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents” (2010), she writes about how we can help our kids embrace mistakes….or at least tolerate them.

Praise and encouragement that is growth-focused acknowledges effort, persistence, willingness to try…even if you totally screw it up.

Achievement focus is when we place importance on the result, not how we got there. Now this doesn’t just mean avoiding telling our kids, “We’re winners in this family! No losers here!”

Think about it….if all we talk about is what the outcome was, even if we’re being nice about it, how could kids think anything else other than that’s what we find important?

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Here are some examples:

(ex: child spilled water while pouring a drink)

“That’s a heavy pitcher, you had to use all your muscles. Each time they’ll get a little stronger, you’ll see.” (Growth mind-set)

“Uh oh! The water spilled.  It won’t work like you’re doing it,  let’s try again and see if we can get it right.” (Achievement mind-set)

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(ex: child lost the soccer game)

“Boy, you guys really hustled out there.  I was exhausted just watching you!  Before long those legs of yours are going to be able to kick a ball to New York!” (Growth mind-set)

“Well, you can’t win them all.  I bet you’ll beat them next time.  Your best goalie wasn’t even here today!”(Achievement mind-set)

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By focusing our attention on the process rather than the outcome, we’re showing our kids that we don’t care about whether they win or lose – succeed or fail – triumph or stumble. It’s the many moments before the finish line that really matter.

In fact, the most profound lessons in this life often come from our mistakes. You and I have made many, and will continue to. How we forgive ourselves and embrace our own mistakes will teach more than our words ever could.

Truth is, I actually think all of us are already “perfect” – I just have a different definition.

Perfect (adj.): excellent and complete, with constant opportunities for improvement