Perfectionism: 8 Tools for Parents with Kids Afraid to Fail

You know the pain. You, whose daughter is nauseated, hunched over the toilet. She’s worried sick that she won’t recall each of the facts she memorized for her history test today, a subject in which she currently has an A. And you. You, too, know the pain. Your son doesn’t sleep at night, and you stand outside his door listening to him cry because of a mistake almost a week ago.

You know the frustration. You, whose daughter doesn’t swing the bat for fear that she’ll miss the ball. It’s better for her to not try than to try and fail. And you, whose son corrects everything his younger siblings say or do, trying to prove his intelligence, belittling everyone else in the process.

And you know the anger. You, whose kid did not complete his science project for school. He worked on it every night, but started over each time, because his rocket “never looked like” a rocket. And you, whose daughter makes you late for everything, because it takes so long for her to get her hair “perfect.”

Perfectionists.

What do you think of when you hear the word? Chances are it’s something negative, especially if you relate to the scenarios above. But, please know there can be healthy behaviors associated with perfectionism. As Jill Adelson Ph.D. and Hope Wilson Ph.D. illustrate, it can lead to high levels of achievement, personal satisfaction, happiness and productivity. If you have a child with perfectionist tendencies, or if you’re a perfectionist yourself, those powers can be used for good.

Still, there’s no getting around the unhealthy, negative effects perfectionists often suffer: fear of failure; general anxiety; procrastination; anger; depression. These symptoms of unhealthy perfectionism can surface at very young ages, and research suggests that they become more severe with time. That makes it important for parents to have a positive influence on their children’s unhealthy tendencies at a very young age. There are things we can do to move our kids away from those unhealthy behaviors and channel their energy, their drive, into something really exciting. Here is a list of things you can start doing to help right now. Some of them might surprise you.

1. Let Them Do Their Homework Wrong

Surprised? Hear me out. There are lots of parents who check their kids’ homework for total accuracy. If they find a math problem with an incorrect solution, they send the child back to do it right. How do I know this happens? I do it myself. But I’m learning to not. Will you join me? Making homework perfect reinforces perfectionist instincts when it might not be warranted. Our intentions are good, but some teachers use homework for the students’ practice and reserve graded work for in-class exams. If you correct the practice, the teacher isn’t getting accurate feedback on the lesson, and the student can’t get professional feedback from the teacher. Still not convinced? Why not ask the teacher directly? Find out what he or she wants to see out of the homework. Then, if you feel you have an opportunity, let the kids return to class with some incorrect solutions. It’s a great way to prove to them that perfect isn’t everything. As long as they are trying, it’s the effort that counts. If you still feel you must check for accuracy, try adopting the phrase “not yet” instead of “wrong.”

2. Discuss Flawed Characters

Look for the flaws in the characters of shows, movies, or books that your child consumes. Ask he or she to identify the mistakes that characters make and what they learn from them. Want some examples? PBS’s Curious George is a perfect place to start with younger kids: that monkey can’t get through an episode without making an innocent, but often huge, mistake, and in the end, he always learns from it. Read the Harry Potter series and discuss both the flawed and perfectionist qualities of Hermione Granger (note, the books are thought to have more value in this regard than the films). And, speaking of imperfect heroes, do they get any more compelling than Anakin Skywalker? From being the galaxies most “perfect” Jedi, to one of its most flawed, then back again. Not enough? Here are some more flawed characters.

3. Stop Telling Your Kids They’re Smart

Surprised again? Here are the facts: studies show that praising kids for being smart or talented ingrains in their minds the idea that their gifts are natural, and not the result of work. This makes effort less attractive to them, and it also makes them afraid to appear anything but smart. They stop challenging themselves due to a fear of failure. “What if I don’t look smart?” Kids praised for being smart are more likely to perform simple tasks repetitively, knowing full well they’ll achieve success and continue “being perfect.” Kids praised for their effort, persistence, and methods are more likely to challenge themselves with increasingly difficult tasks, looking to demonstrate their ability to think through more difficult problems. Next time you want to tell your child that he or she is smart, tell them instead that you love their effort, and you appreciate how hard they work at solving problems.

4. Be Direct (Discreetly)

Sometimes a simple conversation can go a long way. Does your child really understand what perfectionism is? Perhaps start by defining the term along with them. Ask them what they think it means. Tell them what you think it means. Talk about situations and behaviors that might be considered healthy. Then talk about some generic situations where being a perfectionist is unhealthy. Throw in some examples from your life. This conversation will be the foundation for future conversations more directly related to your child’s behavior. Just remember tact! A perfectionist will have an especially hard time understanding that they’ve been doing something “wrong.” Be constructive and encouraging. Avoid judgment at all costs, and if the conversation takes a wrong turn one day, take a break and revisit the topic at another time, and in another way.

5. Get Them in a Yoga Loop

Yoga is endless. There is no goal to achieve, no perfection to attain. Every instance of a yoga class is referred to as a “practice,” during which the only goal is to challenge your body in that single moment. It’s practice for the sake of practice. Instructors encourage students to not compare their abilities to their neighbors’, or even to their own performance during their previous practices. The only concern is the “now,” and to focus on what the body and mind need in that single moment. That brand of mindfulness is largely absent in the minds of perfectionists, and yoga is a marvelous tool for teaching them to think otherwise. I encourage formal child yoga classes, but if that’s not an option and you already know some yoga poses, practice in your home. Just remember to emphasize the goal: effort without the possibility of perfection.

6. Do Brain-Muscle Exercises

Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist responsible for a swath of research in this area, developed a concept she calls “mindset.” The idea is simple: one can have either a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset. Of course there are different degrees, but the point is that the brain, like the muscles in your body, can be worked hard, grow, and get stronger. Why is this important to teach and practice? Perfectionists often have a fixed mindset. They believe their brain, their level of intelligence, is fixed, so they’re always looking to demonstrate and prove its strength. A failure means they’re not smart. However, an individual with a growth mindset understands that every failure is still great exercise, and that on their next attempt, they’ll have that much more brain-strength! Talk to your kids about the brain muscle, and find activities to give it a workout.

7. Play Games About Process, Not Winning

Yes, such games to exist! Check out board games like “Hoot Owl Hoot” or “Race to the Treasure” in which players cooperate with one another to achieve a goal, rather than compete against one another for superiority. Families might also enjoy “The Ungame,” which groups of adults might also enjoy when the kids aren’t around. Dr. Carol Dweck, who I mentioned earlier, collaborated to create an addictive video game, Refraction, to move the focus from achievement to trial and error. A current favorite video game at my house is “Minecraft” in creative mode, which allows players to build and create freely and without threat; there’s nothing permanent or highly visible about their building projects, which gives great license to experiment, fail, and repeat.

8. Make Beautiful Art … Then Throw It Away

ish is a lovely picture book by Peter H. Reynolds about a boy who learns the beauty of making perfectly imperfect art: a wonderful story for kids who just can’t seem to “get it right.” For older kids, try having them make art with the intention of throwing it away. In other words, create for the sake of the creative process, not for the sake of a “piece of art.” Don’t cheat it. Spend time on it, then let it go. Years past, I was told the best way to practice my writing was to create like a child, the idea being that young children are capable of spending hours coloring, then walking away from the work without any concern for it. They don’t treat the end product like a perfect treasure. The treasure was in their process, and their process teaches them to be more creative.

2 thoughts on “Perfectionism: 8 Tools for Parents with Kids Afraid to Fail

  1. I absolutely love this! I am going to be starting a small group in January for some of my AIG kiddos on perfectionism and takings risks and this is a great resource to have/use for this. Thank you so much!

    • That’s so good to know! I’m very happy you’re finding it helpful. Thank you for sharing! We’d love to hear the results, if you’re willing to update us.

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