parenting Q&A: Child's perfectionism a sign of too much pressure, high expectations
My 7 year old is always dissatisfied with her drawings and her schoolwork. I worry that she is a perfectionist and can’t enjoy what she actually does, which is pretty good most of the time. How can I help her develop realistic standards?
You’re picking up on something important for your daughter’s future satisfaction in her skills and achievements. When a person constantly finds fault with herself, it’s hard to develop enough internal motivation to keep trying. Then we can get the situation where a child (or a grownup) turns away from things that don’t come easily or quickly, like deciding “I don’t like math” because it’s hard and takes time to learn, step by step.
There are various reasons kids can develop unrealistic standards for themselves. If we can understand where your daughter is coming from, you will be able to help her get more good feelings from her activities and schoolwork. As parents, the first place to look is at ourselves, since what we do and who we are is so important in shaping our kids’ attitudes.
Are you a perfectionist? Are you pretty hard on yourself? Without realizing it, do you often say stuff in front of your children like “Oh, I should have thought of that” or apologize a lot for all the things you haven’t done? Listen for how many “shoulds” are part of your daily conversation and consider whether you could give yourself a bit more leeway.
Then there’s the possibility that grownups are actually making demands on children that are too steep. Many kids nowadays are expected to do a full day’s schoolwork and be in after-school care or scheduled activities almost every day. Then they have to do homework and help with household chores.
Check to see if your child’s life has an unrelenting level of expectation that she produce all the time. It can help to build in some variation — as parents we can learn from teachers who try to alternate quiet and active times of the day, because they know that children need a rhythm to maintain energy and involvement.
Many kids who are dissatisfied with their work are already expecting too much of themselves. This can come from their universal wish to be a grownup right away, which rapidly becomes the idea that they are supposed to be able to do things as well as adults. We sometimes unknowingly contribute to this confusion by giving too much unrealistic praise to their drawings, for instance, when they are very young.
A 4 year old knows when her picture of a horse doesn’t really look like a horse, and she can be frustrated at falling short. We can help by saying, “You really worked hard on your picture. You thought about all the things that horses have and you put legs and a tail, and he’s such a nice brown color.”
If she expresses disappointment, we can say, “You’re learning how to look and draw in just the right way for a 4-year-old. You are working hard to build your trying muscles by making lots of pictures and practicing how to draw horses. Pretty soon you will see that your pictures look more and more like real horses.”
A more difficult root of perfectionism can be a child’s feeling that she has to take care of parents and meet their needs. Since a child cannot really do that, cannot really do the job of a grownup, she constantly feels herself falling short. Children generalize negative feelings, and so the discouragement can spread to all her endeavors.
If a child is persistently perfectionistic, you may need to seek help to work on family issues that could be playing out in this way.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, and author, with Jack Novick, of "Emotional Muscle: Strong Parents, Strong Children," available at amazon.com or through