Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Build Happy Kids: Bury Perfectionism

"The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement."  – George Will

Life isn’t perfect. How many times did our parents and teachers tell us that? We try to teach our kids the same lesson, but the drama increases when we are dealing with a perfectionist. A kid who thinks every situation in life must be flawless stands no chance of enjoying a happy childhood or adult life.

A perfectionist cannot settle for “good enough.” It has to be perfect – a condition that he determines.  It’s all or nothing.  Even if she has done her best, a “B+” will not suffice when an “A” exists. If he can’t ride his bike faster than everyone in the neighborhood, he’s not going to ride at all. If she can’t be the best on the team, she doesn’t want to even try out. The perfectionist will be the first to notice a flaw, and he’ll want to correct it right away.

The perfectionists’ taste for quality is commendable, and this child’s ambition will benefit him later in life (He may become a successful CEO, business owner, or principal). But many unnecessary disappointments and missed opportunities also lie ahead if the perfectionist’s expectations have not been trimmed down. Here are some thoughts to consider while guiding your young perfectionists.

Teach Flexibility
Don’t let children walk away from good opportunities because the situation is not perfect. Flexibility is a trait they’ll need the rest of their lives. The deception in perfectionism is that life is happier if it’s done exactly “my” way. However, that’s not the way life really works. Imagine someone who walks away from people, straining relationships merely because he sees flaws in other people. No happy ending exists there. 

Flexibility can be taught in everyday situations. Don’t feed perfectionism; it only makes the attitude worse. If she throws a temper tantrum because she wanted the pink dress instead of the purple one, stand your ground. Don’t give in. The parent and child will be happier down the road if you fight the battles early.

Set Realistic Expectations
Some children place unnecessary stress on themselves because their expectations are too high. When a child thinks everything has to be perfect, he is destined for disappointment. In worst-case scenarios, children experience physical ills (i.e. headaches, shortness of breath) due to their self-imposed stress. In other cases, kids want to quit because the task turned out to be more difficult than they imagined.

Help your child set realistic goals. Aim for gradual improvements rather than an immediate jump to the top of the class. Whether the venue is school grades, karate class, soccer team, or another childhood interest, show them that you value their great efforts. Direct them to focus more on what you value (perseverance), not their self-imposed goals. It will also help deter them from stressing themselves or just quitting altogether.

Mind your Example
Some perfectionists learn these traits honestly -- from their parents. When parents confuse mountains and molehills, expect children to have difficulty taming their expectations. When everything at home is high stakes, the stress level in the home will be highly unhealthy. If spilling a glass of milk causes the same reaction out of mom or dad as disobedience, what type of message has been sent to the kids? Must everything be perfect? Can honest mistakes ever be made without the death penalty being issued?

Be commended for aiming high for your kids, but don’t confuse perfectionism with high standards. Aiming high is expecting children to make a mess, and then expecting them to clean it up. Perfectionism emerges when nothing is permitted because it might go wrong.

Everyone has preferences, but the perfectionist lacks flexibility. Everyone has molehills to cross, but the perfectionist only sees mountains. Our goal should not be to convert our ambitious perfectionist into an indifferent bystander. Let’s help them trim their expectations for life, steering their natural drive into something realistic.