Perfection is a heavy burden for children to bear. It makes their thinking rigid and their ability to function erratic. It also fuels anxiety. A child who feels the need to perform perfectly at all times attaches her sense of identity on outcomes versus growth. Failure becomes an earth-shattering experience instead of an opportunity to learn.
Many smart children are perfectionists. They have spent their lives being praised for their wonderful achievements and their natural abilities. The result is that they’re self-worth is often wrapped into their ability to wow people around them. Teachers and parents often pump them up with comments such as: “you’re so smart!” or “Another A! You’re such a great student!”. It makes them feel good in that moment, but unfortunately it does not show them the importance of struggling to learn, pushing past frustration, and persevering through difficulties. It teaches them nothing about being resilient, on the contrary it harms their ability to rise above adversity.
These kids need to learn to embrace failures and risks. They often will avoid tasks that are challenging for fear of failing. They are risk averse, preferring the safety net of what they know themselves to be good at. They show what is referred to as a fixed mindset. Parents and teachers need to help them move away from their black and white thinking. They need to encourage a mindset based on growth and possibilities. Carol Dweck, a researcher and psychologist at Stanford University, recommends that adults praise the child’s effort, not her intelligence or grades. Children should also be taught how their brains work through difficult tasks, as well as how they can actively participate in their own intellectual growth.
School work can be especially challenging for a child who feels the need to be the perfect student. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD and Mark S. Lowenthal, PsyD in their wonderful book Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, make some useful recommendations for parents.
How To Help Your Child Let Go of Perfectionism in School Work
Parents should step away- We parents, nowadays, hover over our children during homework time. This sends the wrong message to our children. Homework is their responsibility, not ours. It’s a contract between them and their teachers. Let them take ownership of it.
It’s okay to provide structure- Although Moore-Kennedy and Lowenthal do not recommend parents sit with their children during homework time, they do suggest creating structure and expectations around the task. For example, she suggests enforcing no screen time until the child’s homework is done.
Parents should resist the urge to correct their child’s work- How many of us have looked at our child’s writing and corrected the grammar or spelling? The impulse we have to correct their work sends the wrong message. It tells the child that mistakes are not acceptable. In addition, the teacher does not see what the child is capable of, and what she still needs to master.
Encourage your child to try a different strategy- Does she understand the teacher’s expectations for an assignment? Does she have good study skills based on a variety of approaches (active learning, memorization, or planned learning increments)? Help her analyze her study skills and work habits. Often smart kids rely on their ease with academic tasks instead of good study habits. They might need help understanding what will work for their learning style.
Teach your child to ask for help- Admitting that you don’t know something and asking for help is empowering. Yet, children who have perfectionist tendencies are more likely to avoid a task, or hide the fact that they cannot perform. They are afraid of what others might think of them, if they do not meet everyone’s expectations. Model asking for help and teamwork in your own life. Share stories with your children about collaboration and helping others succeed. Encourage your child to reach out and seek the help of others. Some children might benefit from a study group or partner.