Parenting: Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection

November 4th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Perfectionism is one of the most destructive diseases among American children today. Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. One edge of the sword drives young racers to be perfect. These children push themselves to win races, qualify for the next level of competition, and set extremely high goals for themselves. The other edge of the sword is that I have never met a happy perfectionist. Why? What’s to be happy about because they aren’t perfect.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism involves children setting unrealistically high standards for themselves and striving for goals that they will never, ever achieve. Yet they believe that anything less than perfection is unacceptable. When they fail to meet those impossibly high standards, they berate themselves unmercifully. Perfectionistic children are never satisfied with their efforts no matter how objectively well they ski, they punish themselves for the smallest mistakes, and dwell on their failures rather than reveling in their successes. After I spoke to a group of racers not long ago, a girl from the audience described to me how she had won three out of four races in a recent race series, yet all she could think about was the race that she didn’t win (she came in second!) and it was eating her up inside.

At the heart of perfectionism lies a threat: if children aren’t perfect, their parents won’t love them. This threat arises because children connect whether they are perfect with their self-esteem; being perfect dictates whether they see themselves as valuable people worthy of love and respect. The price these children pay and the burden they carry is immense and its toll can be truly destructive: unhappiness, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.

By the way, children don’t have to be perfectionistic in every part of their lives to be considered perfectionists. They only have to be perfect in areas that they care about, for example, I have met many perfectionists in ski racing whose rooms were a mess and could care less about how they did in school.

Perfection and Popular Culture

We live in a  culture that reveres perfection. Our culture has elevated success to absurd heights where being good is no longer good enough. Young ski racers must make it to the Olympics; anything less is abject failure.

Perfectionism and Failure

Though it appears that perfectionistic children are driven to succeed, in reality, their singular motivation in life is to avoid failure because they view failure as a voracious beast that stalks them every moment of every day. If these children stop for even a moment’s rest, they will be devoured by failure. These children connect failure with feelings of worthlessness and loss of love.

Though perfectionists often achieve a high degree of success, they often don’t fully realize their ability and achieve true success because of this profound fear of failure. Why? The only way to attain true success is to risk failure, yet perfectionistic children are often unwilling to take that risk. Though the chances of success increase when they take risks, the chances of failure also increase. For example, the only way to ski their fastest may be to ski a really straight line, but there’s always the chance of hooking a tip or not being able to hold that line and sliding low on a turn. So perfectionistic children hover in a “safety zone” in which they remain safely at a distance from failure, for example, they are solid top-ten finishers, but are also stuck at a frustrating distance from success. They know they can be really successful, but they just can’t understand why they can’t get there.

Perfectionism and Emotions

You would hope that perfectionistic children, like all children, experience excitement and pride when they are successful, but that is rarely the case. The strongest emotion perfectionistic children can often muster after they reach an acceptable level of success is relief! Where does the relief come from? They avoided that voracious beast of failure, so they can feel okay about themselves…but not for long. Recently, I asked a group of young racers how long that relief lasts and one girl threw up her hand and shouted, “Till the next race!”

What emotion would perfectionistic children who fail to meet their impossibly high standards experience? You might think disappointment. But disappointment is far too normal a reaction that all children should feel when they fail and disappointment is far too kind an emotion for perfectionists. Perfectionists experience devastation because they perceive the failure as a personal attack on their value as people.

Where Does Perfectionism Come From?

After almost every parent talk I’ve given, a parent says to me, “I swear that my child was born a perfectionist.” Yet there is no scientific evidence that perfectionism is inborn. The research indicates that children learn their perfectionism from their parents, most often from their same-sex parent. Through their parents’ words, emotions, and actions, children connect being loved with being perfect. This doesn’t mean that there are no inborn influences; some genetic attributes, such as emotional sensitivity, may make some children more vulnerable to perfectionism.

Parents pass on perfectionism to their children in one of two ways. Some perfectionistic parents raise their children to be perfectionists by actively praising and rewarding success and punishing failure. When children succeed, their parents lavish them with love, attention, and gifts. But when they fail, their parents either withdraw their love and become cold and distant, or express strong anger and resentment toward their children. In both cases, these children get the message that if they want their parents’ love, they must be perfect. Thankfully, in my twenty-five years of practice, I have only come across a few parents who were this overtly perfectionistic.

Other parents unintentionally role model perfectionism for their children. Examples of how perfectionism is communicated by these parents include having to have themselves and their home look a certain way, their career efforts, their competitiveness in sports and games, and how they respond when things don’t go their way. Children see how their parents hate themselves when they’re not perfect, so they feel they must be perfect so their parents won’t hate them. These parents unwittingly communicate to their children that anything less than perfection won’t be tolerated in the family.

Excellence: The Antidote to Perfection

You should remove the word perfection from your vocabulary. It serves no purpose other than to make your children miserable. You should replace perfection with excellence. I define excellence as doing good most of the time (I use poor grammar intentionally because that’s how most children talk—and I’m not perfect either!). Excellence takes all of the good aspects of perfection (e.g., achievement, high standards, hard work) and leaves out its unhealthy parts (e.g., connecting achievement with self-esteem, unrealistic expectations, fear of failure, devastation). Excellence still sets the bar high, but it never connects failure with the love you give your children (or the love they give themselves). Excellence actually encourages your children to fail—not repeatedly on the same thing due to a lack of effort, of course—because without some failure, true success isn’t possible. Excellence also promotes risk taking because only by taking appropriate risks will your children ski as fast as they possibly can. Without a fear of failure, your children won’t experience failure as that voracious beast and can focus on success and pursue it with commitment and gusto. Plus, because they aren’t in a constant state of fear, they can gain more fun from their ski racing.

Note: If you want to get a jump on achieving Prime Ski Racing, you can order my Prime Ski Racing book and Mental Edge CD here.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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10 Responses to “Parenting: Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection”

  1. Brian |

    “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s heaven for?” — Robert Browning

    It isn’t the pursuit of perfection that is the problem, it’s the belief that anything short of perfection is failure. Instead of the take-away being failure, the take-away should be that they’ve merely succeeded in learning a way that perfection can’t be achieved. Further still, they should take away the idea that they need to change their tactics to something else that hasn’t been demonstrated as successful in missing the 10-ring.

    When Thomas Edison was working on the incandescent light bulb, it took about 5000 experiments for him to figure out that he needed to use a thin tungsten wire as the filament. When asked if he were discouraged by all of failed experiments, he allegedly replied that he wasn’t discouraged at all, that he was just learning ways that an incandescent bulb wouldn’t work.

  2. Tom Carter |

    I spent most of my life in a highly competitive, results-driven world where there was no excuse for failure to achieve goals. That was necessary and appropriate in that world, but it also drove some people to being perfectionists who couldn’t forgive themselves for or forget even small failures to achieve perfect results. Part of our leadership training was to permit people to make mistakes and even to fail in circumstances where the outcome wasn’t critical to overall success. It didn’t work very well because the environment was already so competitive and necessarily achievement-oriented that even small failures became discriminators among people.

    I’ve seen people with “perfect” children who routinely placed demands on them that were excessive and left the kids unhappy and afraid of failing to be perfect. I often wondered if they were growing future serial killers. (Sorry, Jim; I’m sure that’s not supported by research data, but one has to wonder.)

  3. Brian |

    I’m reminded of my dad’s research thesis.

    Dad wanted to know if spraying pesticides on stink bugs at a particular time of day was more efficacious than at other times of the day. He set up 48 cages, all with equal quantities of stink bugs. Starting one Friday afternoon, he dosed one cage of stink bugs with the pesticide every hour on the hour through Sunday afternoon.

    What he determined was that there was no particular time of the day that was more efficacious than any other time of day. On the face of it, this one seemed to be a failed experiment because his hope was that there would be a particular time of day that was more efficacious. The benefit, if there had been a particular time, was that it would save farmers money by spraying the stink bugs at, say, 9 AM, than at any other time because 9 AM would have produced a higher mortality rate.

    The experiment was actually a success because it demonstrated that farmers didn’t have to make a particular time of day a priority in dealing with stink bugs, that if something else came up that were more important, the stink bugs could wait. This too, would save the farmers time and money.

    In any endeavor, the only true failure is a failure to learn. There are only results. If we obtained results that we don’t want, then we can say that we succeeded in obtaining a result that we did not want. Evaluate what led to the unwanted result, change tactics, and do it again. Learn and adapt.

  4. d |

    Insanity,doing the same thing over and over again,expecting different results. I think perfectionism,is more or less, born in most perfectionists. Just my humble opinion,but I know a couple of perfectionists,in my family:-) ,and they were born that way. While,I, raised by the same parents,am most difinitely not. I was,however not so beloved and appreciated by our mother,a perfectionist. Just semantics,Dr. Jim,the difference between excellence and perfection,seems too close to call,to me. I think,we need to tell our children,over and over,to do their best,then accept them and love them,just as much,with all their faults and mistakes. Please,please remember, to always say we love them and are so proud of them,even if they fail.

  5. d |

    Just read that comment I made, to know I am far from perfect,and don’t really care.

  6. Dan Miller |

    One of my former partners was fond of saying that perfection is the worse enemy of the merely excellent.

  7. Dan Miller |

    To demonstrate my point, I used the word “worse” rather than “worst.” Obviously, since I am perfect in every way, it was intentional.

  8. Tom Carter |

    That’s OK, Dan. We can see the excellence underlying your failure to achieve perfection….

  9. Dan Miller |

    I thought I had posted this earlier; evidently not.

    It seems that sometimes mere excellence is too good. According to this article

    The Sedalia Junior Outlaws wrapped up a perfect 6-0 season on Oct. 16 and were the odds-on favorites to a host the fifth-grade division West Central Youth Football League playoffs with the No. 1 seed attached.

    A week later, the team sponsored by Chad Jackson and the Mid-Missouri Outlaws learned they won’t be included in the postseason mix.

    The Junior Outlaws, which outscored opponents 171-0 on the year, accompanied by a running clock in each contest, were notified in the middle of the week by league commissioner Dave Callaway of the West Central Youth Football League that teams would rather forfeit than play them.

    “We received several e-mails from the league commissioner asking us if we’d consider not playing in the playoffs because it wouldn’t be competitive,” Sedalia coach Ben Lyles said. “He said that teams would rather forfeit than play us and that there would be no playoffs if we were involved.”

    Oh well.

  10. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    Thanks for all the great replies. What a weird thing about that football team. Rather forfeit? What kind of lesson is that for kids? According to the article, the coach would hear nothing of forfeiture.

    @d: Though there is likely some inborn influence, such as emotional sensitivity, all of the research indicates that perfection is learned from the parents. As for growing up in the same family, parents don’t raise their children the same even if they are close together in age because parents respond differently to the different personalities of their children and, as a result, raise them differently.

    Love the Edison story.

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