Toys arranged in neat rows. Outbursts over not getting a task right the first time. These behaviors indicate that a child may be a perfectionist. Perfectionists have high standards and a drive to achieve, but they can get tied up in knots over their expectations of themselves. As psychologist Madeline Levine suggests in her book Teach Your Children Well, performance-oriented children “are so afraid of failing that they challenge themselves far less, take fewer risks and therefore limit opportunities for growth.”
How can parents recognize a perfectionist tendency in their child? What actions can they take to help their child do her best without her thinking that her “best” will never be good enough?
Model mistakes and how we learn from them
Adults can struggle with setting standards too high for ourselves and our children. We may not handle our own failure well, which unwittingly communicates a negative attitude toward mistakes to our kids. We can help our children by adjusting our own behavior.
“You don’t want to stress that children shouldn’t make mistakes in the first place,” says Dr. Wendy Grolnick, psychologist and author of Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids. “You want to have the attitude that mistakes are our friends. We learn from them.”
Occasionally point out a mistake you made. Talk to your child about the outcome — that it didn’t derail life and doesn’t reflect poorly on you. Explain what you’ll do to correct the mistake or what you’ll do differently next time.
This approach works for imperfect parenting, too. Allow your child to let you off the hook for a mistake you made. It’ll help him develop a tolerance and compassion toward others’ blunders. Ultimately, he’ll learn compassion toward himself.
Focus on the process, not the outcome
Perfectionists tend to be most concerned about the end product. They’ll often redo work over and over in an attempt to achieve a flawless result.
Kathryn Johnson’s son, Alex, is a hard-working student who takes this approach. “I see him striving to do his best,” she says, “but it borders on constant dissatisfaction. He always thinks, ‘I can do better.’”
Of course, as Dr. Grolnick points out, our outcome-based academic culture doesn’t help these children, either. “There’s more competition than ever before, more stress on grades and standardized test scores. It sets kids up to focus on outcomes.”
Parents should encourage their children to recognize their growth and what they learned from an assignment. Instead of asking, “What grade did you get?” ask, “What did you learn about?”
A focus on outcomes also can cause an aversion to challenges. Perfectionists will stick with tasks they’re sure to complete well, instead of delving into new territory.
Dr. Levine advises, “The best way we can help our children welcome challenges is to encourage them to work just outside their comfort zone, stand by to lend a hand when needed and model enthusiasm for challenging tasks.”
Set time limits or deadlines for projects
It helps Johnson’s son when she set limits for him to complete tasks that he continued to work on too long. She says. “We had to help him realize that at some point he’d wreck his work trying to fix it.”
Alternatively, many perfectionists procrastinate. In this case, chunk projects into smaller pieces and set mini-deadlines for each chunk.
A perfectionist also needs to learn that the ideal in his head may not be possible in this world. A good mantra to teach a perfectionist is “This is the best I can do for now,” which implies that improvement is always possible.
Offer your child validation
Parents can inadvertently communicate that they value accomplishment and results, what Dr. Grolnick calls “contingent parental regard,” when they offer more attention after a child performs well than when she doesn’t. The child learns to associate the praise with being valued for what she does. Let your child know your love is unconditional.
You may have to be specific, such as telling your child that it’s okay that they struggle in a certain area or that a B or C grade is just fine. As you implement any or all of these strategies, remember: Parenting any child, perfectionist or not, is an imperfect job done by imperfect people.
Lara Krupicka is a freelance writer and mom to three girls.