The Problem with Perfect
“Oh, that looks perfect!”
“You did a perfect job with that!”
“Just a little bit neater and then it’ll be perfect!”
“You know what they always say, practice makes perfect!”
Every person has uttered some version of these words at some point. These statements are coming from a place of encouragement and praise. So how is it that these statements are harmful?
The issue lies in the perfection myth. The idea that something is perfect, completely faultless, and unable to be better, is wrong. Human beings are imperfect, and so is the work that they create and how they behave. The perfection myth is motivating to some to constantly work to improve their work in the pursuit of this perfection. But in reality, perfection is merely a mirage; it keeps a person running in the desert, but at what cost, since there is no oasis awaiting them?
In reality, perfection perpetuates anxiety in children. As therapists, we often see the aftermath of this - children and adults who are crippled by a deep sense of failure for not attaining the unattainable. This anxiety created by the perfection myth is no longer motivating, it’s stagnating. It starts early too - tying the shoelaces just right, practicing letters until they mimic the typography created by computers, only settling for 10/10 on worksheets.
Perfectionism in children can sometimes be hard to spot, as their achievements are always so high reaching and exciting! But take a moment to look past what they have achieved and at the measures they took to get there and how they feel about what they have achieved.
Here are 6 signs of perfectionism in children:
1. Becoming extremely upset when they get something wrong or don’t do well
2. Taking a long time with their work because they are focused on not making any mistakes
3. Refusing to try something new due to the fear of getting it wrong the first time
4. Not answering questions that they don’t know the answer to right away
5. Inflexible to trying new ways of solving a problem
6. Procrastinating on their work
Some of these can be seen by parents as their child having high standards for themselves:
“They only get straight A’s!” “They won’t stop until it’s perfect!”
Others are seen as their child being noncompliant:
“They never want to start their work!” “They won’t answer the question when I ask them to!”
In some cases, these reasonings are true! However, it's no accident that all of those 6 signs overlap with signs of anxiety. Perfectionism creates anxiety, and lowers a student’s self-esteem. Anxiety in students is what prevents them from learning new things, being able to sit for exams, and wanting to work at all when it feels overwhelming. This is because perfectionism sets the bar too high, for anyone!
In order to prevent this perfectionism, we have to do away with the idea of perfection. There is no perfect student or perfect child. We have torephrase how we praise good work and how we encourage students to work harder.
“Oh, that looks wonderful! I can see that you worked so hard on that drawing, and I love the colors you used!”
“You really worked hard on that math problem! I know that you tried so hard, even when it was frustrating. Excellent work!”
“You’re doing a great job working on your letters. When you slow down and take your time with them they look awesome!”
“It takes time and effort to learn anything! You’ve done such a fantastic job of working hard. Keep trying and working hard - I know you can do it.”
In reality, getting things right on the first try is typically a fluke. We often mess up and make mistakes (over and over and over again) until we complete or master something. By praising the effort that it takes to achieve something, we teach the children that it’s not the output that matters, it’s how they did it.
While “perfection” is a problem and needs to be eradicated from our minds and vocabulary, perseverance and persistence are worthy replacements! Perfection will stop you in your tracks after the first mistake, but perseverance and persistence will help you work until the end.
If you have any more questions about perfectionism or how to work with a child who is struggling with the burden of perfectionism, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org - we’d be happy to help!