By: Laura Groulx, MSW, RSW
Typically, as a parent, you want the best for your child. You want your child to both survive and thrive. The Western society we live in is individualistic, meaning that success is often viewed from an every-man-for-themselves type of perspective.
Because of this, life can feel competitive at times. For instance, perhaps at one time or another you felt that pressure to make it on that sports team, get into that school, land that perfect job, find that perfect relationship… and have that perfectly-behaved-and-over-achieving-child.
THIS IS A TRAP.
Indeed, the message we tend to receive about success is about status, winning, and one-upping; some people have a tendency to compare themselves to others. However, you cannot “win” at parenting by molding your young, small, impressionable child into the perfect specimen of humanity. There is no such thing as perfect, therefore aiming for this is aiming for an unattainable goal. Your child will feel this.
Listed below are a few of the dangers in attempting to “perfect” your child:
PERFECTIONISM & ANXIETY:
The way I see it, perfectionism is a form of anxiety.
It is the fear and insecurity of not being perfect, of being flawed, of making a mistake, and of all of that being exposed. Also, perhaps most notably, perfectionism can go hand-in-hand with that feeling of not being good enough; fearing the experience of shame associated with the feeling of not being good enough. Because of this, perfectionism can leave us crippled in immobility and indecision; I don’t know what to do next, or how to achieve what I envision, so I am not going to make a move or even try, because if I make the wrong move, I will have to feel and experience the shame of my exposed imperfection. So rather than taking small, imperfect steps forward, no steps are taken at all. Putting this pressure on your child can actually lead to them not wanting to make the next steps in life as they mature.
Sending the message of perfection to your child can leave them feeling as if their naturally flawed and authentic selves are not only not good enough, but are not worthy of support, attention, and love.
Praise focused on achievement and improvement (e.g. better grades, better athletic performance) encourages self-worth to attach to external factors, rather than on internal qualities/characteristics (e.g. that was kind of you! or I love your sense of humour!).
A focus on the former can teach them that they should always be striving to be a better. Always. This doesn’t sound so bad in theory, but really think about this: it also teaches them that they are not good enough the way they are right now, and that support, attention, and love are conditional based on the external factors.
SENSE OF IDENTITY:
Attaching self-worth to external factors can be especially problematic if the primary external factor should ever go away. The activities we’re best at can become intertwined with our identities. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing to support strengths and talents, but am cautioning how much weight and importance is placed on the outcome/achievement. If your child excels at playing the piano, that’s great! However, it is important to send the message that their worth as a person is more than their music; if they make a mistake, they are just as valued. Sometimes life throws us curve balls, and we can no longer engage in that strength or talent. If that should happen, and our identity and sense of self-worth are too closely intertwined with our craft, who are we then?
Perfectionism and anxiety, self-esteem, and our sense of identity, can all impact how we interact with other people. We are not perfect, nor are the people around us. Perfectionism and anxiety can sometimes be projected onto others if we are expecting the BEST of our physical environment and/or the people in our lives.
In some cases, this can come off as controlling. For instance, if we can control/perfect our home environment, our loved ones behaviors, or the scheduling of our time, we are able to avoid the uncertainty of potential imperfection. In addition, a struggle with low self-esteem can leave us feeling as if we’re not good enough for anyone else - if you don’t love yourself, it may be hard to believe that another person can love you for you. Further, regarding our sense of identity, if we aren’t in touch with who we are as a person, it may be difficult to know what we want, what we don’t want, what we’re worth, and where our relational boundaries lie.
To sum it up, children learn by observing and modeling what they see. They watch their parents. They learn from their parents and take on their messages. What we learn about ourselves, other people, and the world when we’re young often translates to beliefs and behaviours that we carry into adulthood.
So, send your child the message that you want them to receive! Parenting is a big and challenging job and there is no such thing as raising the perfect child – so be kind to yourself by embracing your own flaws (perceived parenting flaws and all!), show your child that you embrace your own flaws, and let them know that you embrace theirs.
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