Gina Louis, a primary school teacher from north London, is observing a worrying trend. “Children start my reception class full of enthusiasm for learning but by the time they break up for Christmas, a good handful have started to worry about certain activities,” she says.
The children are scared that they might not be able to do something perfectly – and so decide not to try doing something at all. “They think that only perfect is good enough. It’s a mindset that’s particularly hard to unpick.”
Across society, we’ve become increasingly enslaved to the idea of perfection, says child development expert Dr Rebecca Chicot, co-founder of the website Essential Parent. “Social media plays a part,” she explains. “My daughter watches other gymnasts her age perform the perfect flik-flak and compares herself unfavourably. But what she doesn’t see is the hours of practice required to achieve that moment of ‘instant’ perfection.”
As toddlers, children are very resilient – they fall over a lot when learning to walk, for example, but just keep ploughing on with it. As they grow a little older, that changes, says Dr Chicot. “By the time they start school, perfectionist children become vulnerable to the idea of getting everything right first time,” she says. “[They] start to lose what we call the growth mindset, which is when we believe that we can improve our ability in all things –as opposed to just the things we’re good at – with hard work and practice.”
This can be something that affects girls particularly, she warns. “Perfectionist children tend be very sensitive to the outcome of their endeavours, and extreme perfectionists often completely disengage with activities they feel they’re not going to excel in rather than try at all.’
Perfectionism is also a huge issue for parents as well as their children, argues clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew, who specialises in child and adolescent mental health. “I hear mums putting themselves down at the school gates and describing their children in equally detrimental ways. Kids very quickly get switched onto the importance of achieving at school. It doesn’t need to come from home as well.’
In a culture where parents juggle home life with myriad other commitments, Dr Andrew says we need to relax about instilling a good work ethic and an A* mentality. “You’re already modelling hard work, responsibility and the importance of doing a good job in an authentic and natural way,” she says. “You don’t need to be overt about those values.”
Instead, it’s healthier if both parents and children can simply enjoy doing an activity, rather than focus on its outcome –whether that’s learning to read or how to make a cake. And to the parent sitting on their hands to stop themselves intervening over their child’s latest efforts? “Try to focus on how hard they’re trying and how much your child is enjoying it,” says Dr Andrews.
And remember to praise for improvement. “At Harvard University they’re experimenting with giving an improvement score rather than a grade to try to reduce stress about achieving top marks,” adds Dr Chicot.
Interestingly, Dr Andrews observes that while parents often present their children as the ones with perfectionist issues, it’s actually these tendencies in parents that present as behavioural issues in kids. ‘If your child has a meltdown because his Lego car’s not right, it might be time to relax your own standards,’ she says.
Is your child a perfectionist? What to look out for:
In school, teachers might notice a child has trouble moving on from one task to another in a bid to make the first task perfect. They might struggle to keep up with work because they spend so long trying to excel at every assignment.
They may not want to cross out a word or drawing and instead ask for another sheet of paper if they “go wrong” because they don’t want to be literally faced with their “mistake”.
At home they need toys to be neat and tidy and become very anxious if they’re not - a very structured routine or environment helps children manage the anxiety their perfectionism creates.