My fourth-grade son was completing his math homework on the computer last night while at our dining room table. I was cooking dinner. He then said “Uh-oh” and started crying. I ran over, completely perplexed as to why. He then explained that he had answered the problem wrong too many times and that the computer program finally marked it as wrong. His score ended up being 98 out of 100. He was upset that he had missed a perfect 100 by two points.
My immediate reaction was to give him a huge hug, to say “don’t worry!”, then give a pep talk about the importance of mistakes and how nobody is perfect and then to lecture about the point of homework is to practice… Clearly, I was unprepared. In my attempts to make him feel better, I had a case of verbal diarrhea! I kept thinking about what had we been teaching my son such that he felt compelled to cry over a two-point deduction? What messages and signals were we subliminally sending him such that only perfection was accepted in our house? My heart ached for him.
I remembered all too well the feeling of coming home with near-perfect, but not perfect, test scores. How I felt like an utter failure for my mistakes. How I was met with silence, and a look, that signaled disapproval from my parents. And how scared I was of not doing well academically. I vowed then to not do the same with my children. Fast-forward decades later and my son is feeling the same way that I felt as a little girl.
A 2017 study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” finds that young people are more burdened than ever by pressure from others, including from parents. Perfectionism, the study’s authors say, “is a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I fall short”).”
As I sat there with my son, dumbfounded by his reaction, wracking my brain for all the subliminal messages we had been sending him, I thought to a Washington Post article I had read about how the pressures of perfection on children started with the parents. In this article, they claim that the “parental push to raise an uber-successful child has never been more keenly felt, so much so that researchers have a name for it: “child-contingent self-esteem,” or the tendency for a parent to base their own self-worth on the success of their child. Parents now spend more time than ever on school work with their children, while time spent simply hanging out has declined. Meanwhile, between 1986 and 2006, the number of kids who said their parents surveilled their every move doubled.” YIKES!!! I know deep down that I do NOT want to be that parent.
Combine parental pressures with social pressures to appear perfect in every aspect of our lives (think Instagram, Facebook, etc.) and you have, dare I say, a perfect storm in creating depression, anxiety, desperation, suicide, drug abuse, and eating disorders. The pressures are real and I want so much to protect my children from them. In the Washington Post article, they say that while most parents say they want their children to be happy, what they really want is a high GPA. Having gone through my own feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, I can say honestly that I truly want my children to be happy. Taking that one step further, I want nothing more than for them to be happy and fulfilled.
So I’m making huge efforts to lay off criticism in a hurtful form, to have my actions match my words, to express empathy and understanding instead of stress, anger or irritability. Above all else, to validate my son’s experiences so that he grows into the person he was always meant to be. And hopefully by validating, acknowledging and understanding my own limitations as a parent, I can start to heal that little girl inside as well.