For simplicity purposes we could just say “nobody’s perfect” and leave it at that… but we all know there’s more to it than a catchy little phrase. When it comes to our children, we all want to see them accomplish great achievements. It’s also understandable for us to feel for them when they aren’t “perfect” … when they aren’t a star student or when they strike out 3 times in their little league baseball game. You may have the “perfect picture” of your child in your head, but can you cope with their “imperfections” and embrace the real person in front of you?
Forcing perfection onto your kids can lead to misconceptions about the learning process and develop increased concerns over their mistakes; worse yet, kids may become self-critical and full of self-doubt. A child’s self-worth is closely tied to their parent’s approval, and when imperfection is “punishable” (even in subtle ways, like a look or sarcastic tone) the child might begin to internalize a fear over not being perfect. Typically, this expectation of perfection stems from parents putting unrealistic expectations on themselves, internally criticizing themselves when they themselves aren’t “perfect.” And it can be all too easy to view your children as an extension and reflection of yourself. Your inner-parent criticism can start getting projected outward as you over-identify with your child.
In a sense, the chain of perfectionism continues. One unfortunate bi-product of parental criticism is that kids begin comparing themselves to others, putting too much emphasis on others’ achievements and holding themselves to unrealistic social standards. They might compare themselves with peers in school or on the field/court. But these comparisons to others’ can be different in this “influencer” (social media) generation… seeing fitness accounts, models (of appearance or behaviors), and the latest “viral” video or tweet, as standards of perfection; for better or worse, your kids will strive to be like people (often strangers) vying for attention.
When parents are experienced as controlling and insensitive, placing harsh expectations on their children, their children become are more likely to develop their own unachievably high standards. Kids can lose pleasure in activities that were intrinsically rewarding when they don’t reach their goals (or their parents’ goals for them). Research suggests that these children are more likely to maintain negative perfectionistic tendencies into their adult lives, will be less likely to try new things over fear of messing up, and will be more vulnerable to adulthood depression. You often see the chain of perfectionism continue as children become grown-ups and have their own children.
Learn Coping and Resilience through Imperfection
However, a growth oriented, adaptive approach to developing a child’s abilities can instill some valuable lessons and foster more adaptive coping when mistakes that inevitably happen en route in life. A few ways parents can help their children develop optimism about the learning process, coping skills, and more resilience in the face of failure include:
- Teaching the importance of perseverance in the face of failure—it’s one thing to mess up, it’s another more valuable thing to keep trying until you get it right
- Setting realistic standards for success—don’t base these off of the standards the other parents in the carpool lane have for their kids
- Helping them set high but achievable goals—also set realistic goals for yourself!
- Praise and support effort—learning and growth comes from hard work, avoid emphasizing “natural talent” as a reason someone is successful
- Value and appreciate the “little wins” along the way—help them enjoy the process
- Model self-compassion!
Learn to be perfectly imperfect as a parent. Appreciating that you might not be the perfect mother or father every day can teach you to exude forgiveness and flexibility when it matters even more, when it affects your child. When you are more forgiving towards yourself, it is easier to view your child’s imperfections as normal. This adaptive and understanding approach to your parenting can trickle down into the way you see your child’s development and achievements. Ultimately, it can contribute to a greater sense of confidence for you and your child-, knowing (REALLY knowing) that your child has the ability to learn and be resilient in the face of imperfection.