Preventing Perfectionism

My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.
—Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron knew that his success as a baseball player depended on more than talent and good luck—he also needed perseverance and persistence. He realized, too, that he wasn’t always going to “get it right.” Some days he wouldn’t be the best hitter or the fastest runner, and that was okay with him because he knew that by hanging in there he could turn things around.

Some children (and adults, for that matter), have a hard time embracing this idea; they feel if they cannot do something just right, it’s better not to do it at all, or to work incredibly hard to do it very, very well. This is known as perfectionism and, ironically, it actually makes it harder for people to accomplish their goals because they are either paralyzed by the fear of failure, or burnt out and, thus, unable to do their best. Here are some ways you can help your children develop healthy perspectives about their activities and abilities:

Tips for . . .

  • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • When playing with babies and toddlers, occasionally focus on manipulation or movement, such as rolling a ball. Show them how to do it, help them feel what the motion is like, and provide encouragement for them to try it on their own. When they do it (which may take several tries over time), focus on their excitement with affirmations, such as, “That must have been fun,” or “You worked hard and you did it,” rather than “Good job,” or “That’s right.”
    • When doing activities with your children, such as art projects, sports, or music, don’t criticize yourself, even subtly, by saying things like, “Sorry, that was a bad throw,” “Oops, that color doesn’t look good there,” or “Oh, I have such a hard time carrying a tune.” If your children hear you, their hero, say these kinds of things they may pick up on the idea that it’s more important to be good at something than it is to enjoy it or work at getting better.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • As schoolwork becomes more complicated and involves more homework, help your children to set intermediate goals (e.g., if the assignment involves a math worksheet, set a goal of doing half right after school and half later in the evening).
    • Compare each child’s work and personal progress only to her or his past experience.
    • Try something new, such as a class or home improvement project. Talk with your children about how your learning progresses, the challenges you face, and how you feel about doing something that you aren’t so good at doing.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Be specific about your expectations for your children, and encourage their teachers to do the same.
    • Encourage your children to start a new activity or sport. At this age, they are becoming more coordinated, so they’re likely to find greater enjoyment and stick with it even when they’re having a bad day.
    • Keep the focus of school, sports, arts, and other activities on progress rather than performance. Let your children know that you are proud of them for the values they bring to their efforts—such as trying, helping others, and having a good attitude—not just their talents.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Permeate your home with messages about the value of making mistakes, learning from them, and then letting them go and moving on. Hang quotes like, “This too shall pass,” or “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new,” on your refrigerator, for example.
    • If you suspect your teen is in a serious struggle with school, friendships, body image, or other issues because of perfectionism, consult with your pediatrician and consider seeing a therapist who is experienced in this area. Realize that for some people, counseling shouldn’t be a last resort, but rather a health-maintenance practice.
  • Stay informed of your teens’ progress in school, homework, and other assignments. Help them break down larger tasks into manageable goals and objectives.

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