Perfectionist Parents and Perfectionist Kids

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Maternal Admiration (1869). Image from the WIkimedia Commons.

We know from our prior discussions of perfectionism that perfectionism has genetic and environmental components. Because personality is thought to develop during childhood, the interactions between parents and children have an important impact on the forming personalities of young children. By examining the parent-child dynamic we also gain insight into the possible roots of our own perfectionism.

The parent-child relationship is prone to perfectionism problems. The natural tendency is to focus on transmission of perfectionist tendencies from parents (especially mothers) to children. We don’t need a scientific study to know that many parents see an opportunity in their children to live their own lives anew, perfecting any mistakes the parents made. When children make mistakes, some parents internalize these mistakes as their own mistakes and blame themselves rather than developing an appropriate distance to realize that the child is a completely separate personality. We also know that good parents have the best intentions for their children and want their children to have the best opportunities and lives with less struggle and more joy.

Rather than lay yet more blame on already guilty-feeling parents, however, I would like to focus this discussion along two themes: 1) what are the environmental triggers that tend to result in perfectionism in children and 2) how can you help a perfectionist child cope with life?

Avoiding Perfectionist Parenting

There is not one sure-fire formula to raise a child with a healthy perspective on perfectionism but it appears that one of the most important things you can do for a child is to avoid any messages of conditional love. Children should never be made to feel that you love them only when they are successful and that you feel less toward them when they are struggling or have failed.

Concern with mistakes. . . . It is the element of perfectionism most linked to psychopathology. And it comes about because a child has been made to feel that approval is contingent on performance.

The conditionality of love doesn’t have to be stated. It can be communicated in simply “the way the whole environment is structured,” . . . “If the parent is enthusiastic only when the child accomplishes something or spends a lot of time working at something, then it’s unspoken yet demonstrated by the environment.” . . .

The truly subversive aspect of perfectionism, however, is that it leads people to conceal their mistakes. Unfortunately, that strategy prevents a person from getting crucial feedback—feedback that both confirms the value of mistakes and affirms self-worth—leaving no way to counter the belief that worth hinges on performing perfectly. The desire to conceal mistakes eventually forces people to avoid situations in which they are mistake-prone.

–Hara Estroff Marano, “Pitfalls of Perfectionism,” Psychology Today. (This is a wonderful article and is really worth the click-through. Lots of great information on parenting strategies for healthy kids.)

As you can see, it apparently means as much or more to children to say, “I love you” or “You’re great!” when they have failed or when they have done nothing particularly special than when they are successful.
Some studies show that the influence of the same sex parent (mother-daughter, father-son) is the most important in terms of perfectionist tendencies.  However, some authors have noted that either perfectionist parent has a huge impact on their children. More from author Mary Edwards Wertch’s book, “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress,”:

“From the beginning, Georgia remembers, her father labeled her ‘disobedient.’ Always critical of her, be began to harass her about her weight when she was ten years old. It became the central issue of their relationship. . . . He imposed strict regulations on Georgia and supervised her himself, even to approving the contents of her lunch box. Most nights she was not permitted to join the family in dessert. On holidays when candy was given, hers was rationed. There were special exercise programs which he designed and oversaw. And her father weighed her every three days.”
. . .
A son of a Navy commander relates:
“My dad was a perfectionist; he couldn’t make mistakes. At Christmas, Dad wouldn’t let us decorate the tree, because it had to be perfect. He laid the tinsel on one at a time; he’d let us put the Christmas balls on the tree, then we’d go to bed and he’d put the tinsel on. I remember once I got up and he’d moved all the balls, because they weren’t in the right place.

–Mary Edwards Wertsch, “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress.”

While we might think these parents are extreme examples or rare, when you look closely at yourself as a parent, you will be sad to find examples of your own perfectionist behavior. For many parents, the issue is academic success, demanding excellent grades. Others may choose sports, popularity or appearance. Knowing how much self-worth children derive from their parents’ approval, it is a warning to us all to be very careful with the messages, intentional or unintentional, we are sending to our children.

Raising the Perfectionist Kid

We also know that because perfectionism has a genetic component, some kids will become perfectionists regardless of how non-perfectionist their parents are. What can you do to help the perfectionist child develop a sense of balance?

The National Association of School Psychologists has developed a wonderful parent/teacher handout on “Children and Perfectionism” which you can read here. Some of the suggestions (excerpted below) are a little surprising:

  • encourage becoming comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • model and encourage graceful acceptance of your own mistakes.
  • have the student sign a “contract” not to be perfect: sleep late, get a “B,” etc.

–Virginia Smith Harvey for the National Association of School Psychologists, “Children and Perfectionism.”

Delving into the subject of parent-child perfectionism is not easy and forces us to confront our own mistakes and the hugely important role we have in shaping the lives of those around us. These lessons could also be applied in the work context and on Monday we will explore exactly that.

Have a great weekend!

Update! If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested to know that Ruly dedicated the month of July 2011 to the topic of perfectionist parenting. A summary list of those posts can be found here.