Perfectionism is a common trait and many of us experience varying levels of it throughout our lives. It can make us strive for more and work hard, but it can also be a hindrance and prevent us from moving forward through fear of getting things wrong.
Some children have no problem with trying new things and making mistakes until they get it right. However, some are perfectionists and struggle when they don’t live up to the high standards that they have set for themselves. Perfectionism can make us knuckle down and produce high quality work, but it can also come at a price and be linked to feelings of inadequacy and worry. Children (and adults) who display perfectionist tendencies might:
- Struggle to try something new through fear they might get it wrong
- Get upset and overreact when they make a mistake
- Have extremely high standards for themselves
- Find it difficult to make decisions or choose what to do next
- Embarrass easily
- Put themselves down or feel like they are not good enough
- Be very sensitive to criticism
- Stay within their comfort zone and struggle to step into unfamiliar territory
- Be critical of others
Personally, I have always been a perfectionist and it hasn’t been easy making the inevitable mistakes that I’ve had to make in order to get to where I am today. I have always known that in order to succeed, I need to step outside of my comfort zone. However, in order to do that, I have had to risk failing because each time I do, I’m in unfamiliar territory. Not easy when you like everything to be perfect and just so!
I write and illustrate storybooks that are given as gifts to children from nurseries, childminders and primary schools and I remember years ago getting my first ever batch of 1000 books printed. I was so excited! I had proofread the books about a million times and couldn’t wait to see physical copies of them. The day finally arrived and as I turned the books over to look at the cover, I realised that I had forgotten to put pupils on the eyes of the little superhero character on the back! I was absolutely mortified and felt like it had ruined everything. After about a 2-hour meltdown on the phone to my mum, she managed to convince me that it wasn’t the end of the world and that I had still achieved a lot despite this minor mistake. Since that moment, I have added a thorough illustration check to my proofreading regime and touch wood, although many other mistakes have been made over the years, that particular one hasn’t been made again.
The problem with what happened wasn’t that I was upset about making a mistake. It was the size of the reaction along with the overwhelming feeling of not being good enough that stemmed from it that was out of balance. In that moment, I couldn’t see all of the good I had done because that tiny error erased my ability to acknowledge anything but that. Taking pride in our work is one thing but being consumed with negative feelings when we make mistakes is only ever going to hold us back and delay how long it takes to move forward onto better things. In that moment, I realised that I had a choice. I could either dwell on the mistake, or I could learn from it and move forward. I chose the latter and since then, have consciously done what I can to prevent my perfectionist traits from holding me back.
We are programmed in our early childhood and our experiences shape our future and how we view the world. In order to help our children to overcome perfectionism, we can do the following things:
Avoid comparing them to others
We are all individuals and have our own strengths and weaknesses. Children need to learn to focus on their own progress, rather than measuring themselves against someone else’s. Forward is forward. Some of us move faster than others, but as long as we are moving forward, we are growing and developing, which is important.
It is better to try something new and fail, than to stay safe and be great at something we have always done. If we want children to try new things, we need to put as much emphasis (if not more) on their effort and courage, as we do on the outcome of what they are trying to achieve.
Teach them that failure is good
In life, we either win or we learn. By teaching children that there is a lesson in every mistake, we will build up their ability to grow and develop. Failure is a part of success so in order to fulfil our potential, we need to be able to fail and move forward.
Allow children to fail
If we always let children win, or put them in situations that are easy, they will never learn how to fail or build their resilience to it.
Show your own imperfections!
Children learn from what they see. If adults around them never make mistakes, we automatically set a standard of perfection. By saying sorry when we get things wrong and by telling children when or how we have made mistakes, we make it okay for them to do the same.
Encourage them to try their best
There is nothing wrong with having high standards and trying our best. However, that is very different to being perfect. If we can get children to see the brilliance in their efforts and to show pride in how hard they tried, they will automatically do things to a high standard as well as accept their flaws.
The power of ‘YET’
A great tool that we can give children is the word ‘YET’. Whenever they say they can’t do something, add the word ‘YET’ to it. This changes the dynamic from being defeatist, to being empowered. Encourage children to use this word and to explore what they need to do in order to get where they want to be.
At the end of the day, we are all imperfect by nature and if we expect ourselves or others to never make mistakes, we are in for a lot of disappointment. Children are constantly learning and growing and their ability to see the lessons in failure will only ever help them to step into the next level of their brilliance. Will we ever be perfect? No! But we can be better than we were yesterday. If we teach children this and make them feel perfectly imperfect, they will be more likely to succeed in life because instead of letting mistakes define them, they will use them as a stepping-stone to better things.
About the author
Stacey Kelly is a former teacher, a parent to 2 beautiful babies and the founder of Early Years Story Box, which is a subscription website providing children’s storybooks and early years resources. She is passionate about building children’s imagination, creativity and self-belief and about creating awareness of the impact that the Early Years have on a child’s future. Stacey loves her role as a writer, illustrator and public speaker and believes in the power of personal development. She is also on a mission to empower children to live a life full of happiness and fulfilment, which is why she launched the #ThankYouOaky Gratitude Movement.
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