Is Your Perfectionism Stunting Your Child?

Perfect is such a funny word. It’s a misleading word. It feels so cozy and warm, soft like kitten paws and oversized sweaters. It’s like a summer day spent beachside with the sun on your shoulders and the sound of the waves. But try to chase perfect and all that warm and wonderful imagery slips away. All the comfort and serenity of perfect is suddenly replaced with a world of rules and rigidity, discipline, and self-criticism.

Perfect is a double-edged sword that entices us with images of an ideal tomorrow where we can finally relax and reap the rewards of our own hard work. Yet that tomorrow never comes and we punish ourselves for falling short by working increasingly harder.

The sad truth is that nothing is perfect enough for a serious perfectionist and it’s extremely difficult to overcome the idea that is we push ourselves just a little harder, we can finally achieve some ever-elusive ideal.

Perfectionism becomes even more dangerous when it turns its focus on our kids whose nature it is to make mistakes. We all know that making mistakes is simply human, an unavoidable fact of life. But we often forget that without mistakes, there is no learning, no creativity, no lightness to life.

Setting unrealistic expectations and standards consciously (or unconsciously) for our children can rob them of exploration and discovery, risk-taking, and joy when instead we can leverage parenthood as our ticket out of our own perfectionism. We just need to give ourselves and our kids the freedom to be imperfect human beings fully worthy of love.

Intrusive Parenting & Perfectionism

At some point, we’ve all stepped in to correct, improve, or fine-tune our children’s skills and learning. It’s natural for us to want them to develop and to succeed and as parents, it’s part of our job to help guide and teach them along the way. But how much involvement is too much and at what point do our expectations and standards become overwhelming?

We have to be honest with ourselves and evaluate whether our parental involvement is simply providing an extra boost that’s helping our kids to strengthen their confidence and abilities, or if we’re intruding to the point that our children either 1) begin to think that they can’t accomplish anything worthy on their own or 2) they strive for mastery, not for the joy of accomplishment, but in order to find our approval and love.

As a general rule, when it comes to the art of effective parenting, all of us should take the time to discover the motivation behind our behavior as it relates to raising our children. It’s especially important to identify the reason we might be placing impossible standards of perfectionism upon their tiny shoulders.

We have to love our child enough to face the tough question “Am I expecting too much from my children?” and if we find that the answer is a resounding yes, we then have to dig deep within ourselves to ask the even tougher question, “Why?”

Many of us become intolerant of imperfections because we see our children as an extension of ourselves and stop differentiating between their identities and our own. We then start to measure our own sense of worth through our children’s accomplishments.

For others, fear drives us to perfectionism. We fear that the world has become increasingly hostile and competitive, making it imperative for our children to excel in every activity in order to secure their chances of success and happiness later in life.

And for still others, our own upbringing, growing up under the watchful eye of our own perfectionist parents, has trained us to continually seek perfection and approval in everything we do, including our parenting. Our need to control our children’s achievements may be a byproduct of the messages we ourselves received when we were kids. And because these messages are stored in our subconscious mind, we may not even realize that we are acting out these messages until our children are negatively impacted by it.

Whatever the motivation, if our parenting style has become intrusive and overbearing, we have to recognize that our children aren’t being held to high standards, they’re being asked to perform at a level of perfection that could be stunting their growth.

The Difference Between Perfection and High Standards

In all of our relationships, we have our expectations and hold other people to our standards. Having high standards can be a good, positive goal for children who can enjoy a challenge. High standards for performance generally lead to good work ethics and drive. The goal, however, is to have standards that are attainable, that with some work will give our kids the joy of achievement that’s appropriate for their age and skill levels.

Expecting perfection, on the other hand, can deflate a child’s sense of confidence and their willingness to take on a challenge if they’re unsure of achieving perfect results. Perfectionist parents send the message that there is no middle ground. Their children either have to excel or their performance isn’t good enough.

The Problems with Perfectionism

The demand, spoken or unspoken, that kids need to be perfect can lead to serious emotional, developmental, and behavioral problems. A sense of self-worth is at risk if any accomplishment short of perfection is harshly received. Children can begin to feel a profound and constant sense of failure, as well as resentment, becoming mercilessly hard on themselves and increasingly self-critical.

Perfectionism is often contagious and perfectionist parents can lead to perfectionist kids who believe they have to be the best at any cost. These children can become trophies to the parents, and eventually end up feeling as if nothing they do is ever good enough. As they reach adulthood, they are prime candidates to become workalcoholics, rarely satisfied with their achievements. They work hard at being perfect, in hopes of somehow winning the attention and approval of their parents (or superiors) and feeling loved. They also often become adults who never feel “good” enough or proud of their own accomplishments.

Serious perfectionists are also at an increased risk for depression, eating disorders, and self-harm. Sadly, they’re resistant to seeking help for fear of appearing weak. They struggle with an obsessive drive for approval, looking for validation outside of themselves and trying to find love based on their accomplishments.

Letting Go of Perfectionism

Our main job as parents is to be a good role model for our children. So instead of spending copious amounts of time trying to mold them into perfect people, we need to let them see us embrace our own imperfections.

Try this simple exercise. Pick up a pencil and paper and find a quiet place to sit. Now draw a perfect circle. Try it again and again until you succeed. Pretty soon you’ll see that this goal is completely unattainable and unproductive. It’s a simple lesson in humility. As smart, talented, and skilled as we are, that perfect circle is beyond our reach. Look at the paper again. How many circles have you drawn that are ‘good enough’? It’s time to accept the idea that good enough is your personal best and perfect is impossible. Now give your children that same understanding an acceptance.

At their age and phase in life, they’re learning so many things at once. It’s unfair to expect perfection from anyone, but especially from a child who is in the process of learning and development. For all your years, you still can’t make that perfect circle. How can you hold them to standards of perfect?

Having children is an opportunity for you to move beyond perfectionism rather than pass it down. Logically, we all know that being a perfect parent is impossible. We don’t even have a sense of what perfectionism in parenthood looks like, to reverse engineer a set of rules to achieve it. But for those of us who have been high achievers in work or school, it can be especially difficult to let go of the perfectionism that has allowed us to succeed on other fronts. However, it’s important to remember that in the workplace and in academia, there are clear goals and objectives to measure your achievements. This doesn’t exist in parenthood. There are no rules, no markers. You’re navigating new experiences unique to you and your family. It’s time to let go of hopes of winning at this.

Similarly, just as every parenting experience is new and uncharted, so is very new learning experience for your child. They haven’t done this before. They haven’t mastered being a child, much less a capable adult. They don’t have a wealth of experience and lessons learned to draw from. We need to understand that the goal is practice, not perfection.

When we find ourselves defining our worthiness by our own or our children’s achievements, we need to stop and surrender to the idea that we can be loved simply for who we are, rather than only for what we’ve accomplished. And we need to make sure that our children understand that we love them not just for their achievements, but for their existence.

Our children can provide us with a chance to grow beyond our own perfectionism. We need to recognize our own imperfections and acknowledge our mistakes. Once we do that, we can give our kids the space, freedom, and trust to make their own mistakes and to grow from them. Just remember: It’s possible to love and be loved, warts and all.

Tags : parenting   conscious parenting   mindful parenting   

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