The Perils of Perfectionism

Updated: Sep 27, 2018




The Wall Street Journal published an article over Labor Day weekend called "The Perils of the Child Perfectionist" by Jennifer Breheny Wallace. The writer discusses the rise in perfectionism and the negative impacts of setting unrealistic goals for our children.


All parents want to help their child reach their greatest potential. Research suggests, however, children who constantly try and attain perfection tend to set very high standards in order to seek approval from others - and when they fall short, they are overly critical of themselves.


Setting unrealistic goals is shown to increase stress, making it harder for children to think clearly and actually inhibiting achievement. Perfectionism can also lead to more serious emotional and mental health issues.


So, if setting unachievably high goals isn’t the way, how then, do we help our children reach their full potential? Smart Love suggests the following:


Focus on Effort

Instead of focusing on end results like grades or test scores, focus on your child's effort, study habits, and strategies. A major study by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, showed that when children were told "you are so smart", their motivation declined. Because if they are "good" at something, then mistakes should not take place. And to avoid the pain of "not being good" they avoid trying. Instead offer comments on their effort. Some examples may be:

  • "You really focused on doing those math problems – I bet it feels good to have done that.”

  • “I can see you put a lot of effort into making sure your homework is done.” 

Learning is Growing

Remind your child that their intelligence is not finite and that when things are difficult, and they persist through the challenge, their mind is expanding and they are learning. Each time they learn something new, their brain is making connections! Discuss, explore, and provide examples of your child's growth.

  • “Remember when you struggled at learning your multiplication tables? But look at you now! At first you didn't know 2 x 2, but now look how many you have learned! You worked very hard.”

Mistakes are Part of Learning

Let your child know that making mistakes happen and it is okay to make them as it's part of the process! Remind them that each time they fail and try again, their brain is growing stronger! Try not to step in to prevent your child's mistakes, as making mistakes is how they learn to persevere in the face of challenges. But do offer your help and support before the struggle turns really frustrating for your child. The love and care you provide in moments like this will bolster their resilience and help them overcome obstacles. Real world examples can be very helpful for children (and adults!)

  • Walt Disney was fired from his job at the local newspaper because he ‘lacked imagination and had no good ideas.’

Most Importantly - Listen!

Listen to your child. Listen without judgment. Listen to the challenges and triumphs of their day. Validate their feelings. Try to understand their point of view and communicate your understanding. If their story is a sad one, listen and empathize, and then show them how to navigate through those sad feelings! Suggest a fun and comforting activity you can do together, such as reading a good book or other constructive and enjoyable activities. When you do this, you'll be amazed at how quickly your child will power through those negative emotions.

  • "I bet that hurt your feelings - I'm so sorry to hear that. Thank you for sharing that with me."

  • “You look really upset, I can understand that. I think I would be upset too.”

Spending time bringing your child closer not only helps them in school, but creates a happier home and happier child.

Natalie & Ben Heineman Smart Love Center

2222 N. Kedzie Blvd.

Chicago, IL 60647

Oak Park Location

1010 Lake Street, Suite 500

Oak Park, IL 60301

Preschool: 773.665.8052 ext. 1

Counseling: 773.665.8052 ext. 4

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