WHAT'S WRONG WITH PERFECT?



By Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D.
Director, Family Achievement Clinic
Author of See Jane Win for Girls and Smart Parenting



Good, better, best
Never let it rest,
'Til your good is better
And your better best.

When teachers notice students who seem to be under pressure in their classrooms, they almost always blame mothers for these children's pressures. Mothers, who can't imagine how they could have pressured their children, tend to blame fathers. Fathers tend to plead "not guilty" and then, in turn, blame schools. Now the blame for pressures has come full circle, and hardly anyone can figure out why some children exhibit symptoms of pressure.
Symptoms of pressure include very slow, meticulously completed assignments, crying in school, procrastination, avoidance of school assignments, self-criticism, low self-confidence, inability to think of ideas, incomplete work, and overreactions to teacher or parent criticism. Perfectionism may be at the root of all of these symptoms.

EXCELLENCE IS OK
We want our children to strive for excellence. Quality work is a reasonable goal; but, perfectionism goes beyond excellence. It leaves no room for error. The outcomes must be the best. Perfectionism provides little satisfaction and much self-criticism because the results never feel good enough to the doer. Excellence is attainable and provides a good sense of accomplishment. Perfection feels impossible and is impossible for the doer.

THE PRESSURES OF PERFECT
The pressures of perfectionism may lead to high-achievement motivation or may just as easily lead to the problems of underachievement. The pressures children feel to be perfect may originate from extreme praise they hear from the adults in their environment. They may also come from watching their parents who model perfectionistic characteristics, or they may stem from their own continuously successful experiences which they then feel they must live up to. It is only slightly different than the motivation for excellence. That small dissimilarity prevents these children from ever feeling good enough about themselves and precludes their taking risks when they fear the results will not be perfect. They avoid and procrastinate and feel anxious when they fear they cannot be good enough. They may experience stomachaches, headaches, and depression when they make mistakes or perform less well than their perfectionistic expectations.

VARIETIES OF PERFECTIONISM
In most ways perfectionists are all-or-nothing people. They see themselves as either perfectly successful or total failures. On the other hand, some children may only be specifically or partially perfectionistic. For example, some children are perfectionistic about their grades and intellectual abilities; others may be perfectionistic about their clothes and their appearance; some are perfectionistic about their athletic prowess or their musical or artistic talent; some are perfectionistic about their room organization and cleanliness; and some children (and incidentally, also some adults) are perfectionistic in two or three areas, although there are some areas that apparently don't pressure or bother them at all.

PERFECTIONISM AFFECTS OTHERS
Perfectionism not only affects the perfectionist but also affects those around them. In their efforts to feel very good about themselves, perfectionists may unconsciously cause others to feel less good. Spouse, siblings, or friends may feel angry and oppositional, although they don't often know why. Sometimes they feel depressed and inadequate since they can't ever measure up to the impossible standards of the perfectionist. In order for perfectionists to maintain their perfect status, they may unconsciously put others down. Giving others unsolicited advice seems to reassure perfectionists of how intelligent they are. They're so determined to be impossibly perfect that causing others to feel bad has an unconsciously confirming effect on their own perfectionism. So, to balance the perfectionistic child in the family, there seems always to be a "bad kid" or an underachiever. The perfectionistic spouse, in his or her effort to feel best, may also cause his or her partner to feel inadequate or less intelligent.

PARENTS AND TEACHERS CAN HELP PERFECTIONISTS

  1. Help kids to understand that they can feel satisfied when they feel they've done their best; not necessarily the best. Praise statements which are enthusiastic but more moderate convey values which children can achieve, for example, excellent is better than perfect, and you're a good thinker is better than you're brilliant.
  2. Explain that children may not be learning if all their work is perfectCthat mistakes are an important part of challenge.
  3. Teach appropriate self-evaluation, and encourage children to learn to take criticism from adults and other students. Teach them how to criticize others sensitively and constructively.
  4. Read biographies which demonstrate how successful people experienced and learned from failures. Emphasize their failure and rejection experiences as well as their successes. Help children to identify with the feelings of those eminent persons as they must have felt when they experienced their rejections.
  5. Share your own mistakes and model the lessons learned from mistakes. Even try to laugh at your own mistakes. Humor helps.
  6. Teach children how bragging effects others and how to congratulate others on their successes.
  7. Teach children routines, habits, and organization, but help them to understand that their habits should not be so rigid that they can't change them. Purposefully break routines so your children are not enslaved by them. For example, if they make their beds daily, insist that they skip that chore on days when you're in a hurry. If you read to them at night and it's late, insist they go to sleep without reading. Occasional breaks in routines will model flexibility.
  8. Teach kids creative problem-solving strategies and how to brainstorm for ideas that will keep their self-criticism from interfering with their productivity.
  9. Explain to children that there is more than one correct way to do most everything.
  10. Be a model of healthy excellence. Take pride in the quality of your work but don't hide your mistakes or be constantly self-critical. Congratulate yourself when you've done a good job by letting children know that your own accomplishments give you satisfaction.

The dilemma for parents and teachers is to balance helping children be successful and "good kids" without also causing them to be burdened by the negative side effects of too much pressure to be the best. The childhood rhyme in the introduction to the article summarizes the problem well. We want our children to grow up to work hard and take pride in their work, but if they "never let it rest," they will never feel the satisfaction they have earned.



Dr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist who directs Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio,and is a clinical professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. She has authored many articles and books,including Smart Parenting: How to Raise a Happy, Achieving Child, Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades--And What You Can Do Aout It, Raising Preschoolers, and See Jane Win™: The Rimm Report on How 1000 Girls Became Successful Women, which is a New York Times Bestseller and was featured on the Oprah Winfrey and Today shows and in People Magazine.  Her newest books, the companion volumes to See Jane Win, are See Jane Win for Girls and How Jane Won: 55 Successful Women Share How They Grew From Ordinary Girls to Extraordinary Women.

Dr. Rimm speaks and publishes nationally on family and school approaches to guiding children toward achievement. She is a dynamic speaker who fascinates audiences, speaking on many topics, tailoring her educational talks to the special themes of the audience. Her newspaper column is syndicated nationally through Creators Syndicate, and she also writes for Redbook magazine. A favorite personality on public radio for many years, Dr. Rimm also appears regularly on television.  She has been a longtime contributing correspondent on NBC's Today and Weekend Today and has been interviewed on 20/20 several times. She can be contacted via her web site at http://www.sylviarimm.com.



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