At the other end of the parenting spectrum are the overly demanding parents – the perfectionists. Instead of telling children that everything they do is wonderful, these parents send the message that everything the child does either has to be done perfectly or wasn’t done well enough. They demand perfection from their children and expect them to do extraordinary things. Should a child not live up to their demands, they are quick to let them know what a disappointment they are and how they should be doing better.
Why perfectionism is harmful to children
Most overly demanding parents never see themselves as such. They don’t consider their demands to be unreasonable. They usually revert to the defense that they merely have high expectations for their children, which in and of itself certainly isn’t a bad thing. They’ll make the argument that their Nazi-like parenting style is helpful and necessary for success. They are practical, they suggest, while the rest of us have our head in the sand about what it takes to succeed in the global workforce. But such an overly demanding environment tends to produce a number of unintended consequences:
A) Kids were not meant to spend childhood sitting in front of a book or musical instrument for hours upon hours in rote rehearsal. When kids are made to endure this, it causes stress. Stress is stress, and the added stress kids endure because an overly demanding parent makes their days miserable is no different than the added stress kids endure living with an alcoholic or abusive parent. Anytime you create a chronically high-stress environment for your children – for whatever reason – you risk a number of disastrous outcomes.
B) Perfectionism is a trait intertwined with anxiety. Perfectionists are highly anxious people. They routinely fret over miniscule details of something that most other people wouldn’t even notice. This brings a great deal of unnecessary stress into their lives; stress over things that are only important to them and have nothing to do with success. Kids who adopt this perfectionist attitude are in for a lifetime of high anxiety.
C) Perfectionism actually stifles accomplishment more commonly than it fosters it, for a number of reasons. Most monumentally, perfectionist parents tend to foster skills that do not necessarily correlate to success. You’ll often hear child psychologists say something like, “the kids who play grow up to be Bill Gates. The one’s forced to practice piano all day long become highly efficient secretaries.” The things kids normally do during an unmolested childhood are not unimportant, and stealing away from this to force them into rigid academic pursuits fosters some competencies but destroys others. Such children spend their youth being trained to perform a set of instructions perfectly, not to improvise or think independently. In fact, the tiger moms of the world work to crush independence while demanding strict obedience, and they put an emphasis on mastering knowledge while starving a child of opportunities to “think diagonally” or use their imagination. As a result, these kids morph into wonderful robots and highly efficient automatons, but they lack the cognitive flexibility that allows their peers to see things from different angles and think about problems differently.
Perfectionism can also stifle success because kids are too worried about failure to try new things. When they fear they’ll come up short or that it can’t be done perfectly, they may choose not to try at all. The lingering shadow of their parents’ demands can create an anxiety that is crippling.
D) Perhaps most importantly, perfectionists are inflexible. Perfectionist thinking is by its very nature rigid and concrete. They are obsessive; demanding of both themselves and others, which leaves very little room for error in life. This inflexibility is a killer when it comes to handling adversity. When things don’t go perfectly in their life, perfectionists have a much more difficult time accepting things and letting go, so children raised in this manner are going to struggle in the face of adversity.
E) Saddled with the never-good-enough, sky-high expectations of their parents, it sets them up for failure if they fall short. Even among smart, intelligent kids who try hard, few will enjoy monumental success of the type that matches their parents’ expectations. When they fail to take the world by storm, even an otherwise successful life can be perceived as a failure.
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If you’re one of these parents, the best thing you can do for your kids is to loosen up a bit. Remind yourself about why unstructured down time and free play is so important; both for your child’s mental health and their future success. Expose them to a variety of things and encourage them to work to excel at everything they do, but don’t demand they master the pursuits you want them to attain. Kids can be allowed a childhood and still have plenty of drive and plenty of success later in life.
Also work to overcome these attitudes in yourself. It’s almost impossible for perfectionists not to transfer this obsessive neurotic thinking to their kids.