I first caught on to this idea of excellence and perfection in the Birth Order book. The way the author counsels perfectionists is to get them to aim for excellence, not perfection. First born and only children are often perfectionists because their only role models are grown ups who do things bigger, better and faster. But let’s back up. A perfectionist, contrary to popular belief, is not someone who just tries to do things perfectly. Many people do that. It is someone who is frozen, unable to act, and paralysed by the fear that what they will do will not be perfect. They are scared to try new things and very wary of the unknown. Perfectionists, therefore, are passive, not starter-finishers and are more often than not procrastinators. This can be devastating to their self-esteem and have a hard time rising above it, even to do things they so desire to do. Some personalities will be more prone to this, but there are some things we can do as parents to promote excellence in our household balanced with unconditional love where a child can feel safe to both succeed and fail.
As with most areas of life, this requires walking a fine line between expecting too much and not expecting enough. Research shows (according to the 5 Love Languages of Children) that children – by the age of 3 – who were engaged in a variety of learning activities relevant to their age will have a significantly greater chance of meeting their potential as adults. Children who are just left to wander the neighbourhood, play ball and watch TV (none of which are bad in themselves) may not ever reach their potential as their ability to learn and focus was “activated” late. Waiting until your child goes to school to learn is – neurologically speaking – too late. While children will just learn from exploring, there should be times of purposeful teaching and sensory exploration that you initiate. Now, I know I sound like a supermom here, but this is just how it is. Being annoyed that parenting requires so much effort won’t change it. We don’t need to sign our kids up to do synchronised swimming, piano, soccer and music all in one week just to expose them, of course. But we do need to purposefully train and teach them in a variety of activities to reach their potential.
Some thoughts on excellence and perfection:
1) Unconditional love is always the foundation. Children who feel unconditionally loved learn better, behave better, sleep better and generally are better suited to thrive. Unconditional love does not mean you condone bad behaviour, it simply means your love for them is not based on their behaviour, but based on their position. Their position as your child means they have your complete love. Period. If they feel unconditionally loved – and I mean feel it in their heart, not just know it in their head – they will be motivated to follow your lead. They will trust your intentions, guidance and will want to please you. Not because they need to please you but because they want to please you.
2) Require excellence of effort, not excellence in result. If one child tries their very best and brings home a C, throw a party. If your child spends a long time carefully coloring in the Barbie colouring book but the colours are odd and nothing was in the lines, show it off and hang it up. The result is only of secondary importance to their effort. If they learn to give their all at a young age this should naturally transition them into hard-working and purposeful adults.
3) Evaluate your own personality. If you tend to be laid back, easy-going and passive then you probably don’t require enough of your children. If you are ambitious, neurotic (ahem, like me), and aggressive then you are probably expecting too much. If their chore of the week is dishes and they wait until your back is turned and simply run them under hot water and call it a day, you probably need to do a little training in putting forth more effort. If you expect your 6-year-old to fold the towels all perfectly even like you so they look better in the linen closet, you probably need to take a step back. If you are in perfect balance then, by all means, please share your secret! Children who are not required to achieve a certain acceptable standard will find it difficult to focus and work hard later in life and will not be easily self-motivated. On the other hand, children who are held to an impossibly high standard will be left feeling as though they can’t measure up.
4) Encourage and expect your children to “give it a go.” My 18 month old sometimes wants me to do her games for her. If there is a round hole and a round block she’ll try for a second and then hand it to me and say “please.” I recognise this as her thinking she can’t do it, but knowing I can. I’ll put it in one time careful to show her exactly how. Then I’ll put the block in her hand and do it, then I’ll give her the block. 9 times out of 10 she’ll succeed in doing whatever we were playing and she is always so proud of herself. No prouder than I am of her, of course, but she will say “yay” and give a little dance. What she thought she couldn’t do, she can, and it pleases her. Knowing first borns tend toward perfectionism, I watch her like a hawk to make sure she feels free to try new things and, succeed or fail, have fun. If it takes her twenty minutes to climb the three-foot ladder outside, I don’t rush her. When she acts I specifically praise her action and say “well done.” If she “messes up” I say, “that’s okay, good effort, let’s try again.” Don’t let them quit after a “failure” or they’ll be left feeling down.
5) Don’t be afraid to spur your child on a little further. While unrealistic expectations are unhealthy, too low expectations are also unhealthy and probably have even worse consequences. An adult who was never required to give an excellent effort as a child will be less motivated and have less experience of the joy and triumphs of success. Adults who were expected to do their best (not be the best) will be set up to succeed in the real world. Growth and character building come when we make the hard decisions and do what’s right even if we don’t feel like it. If children aren’t used to getting out of their comfort zones and doing what’s right even if they don’t feel like it, they will not do it simply because they come of age. Having an attitude of “they’ll have time to do that later, let them be kids now” is just another form of credit card parenting that does no one, particularly the kids, any favors.
If your kids are tending toward perfectionism, first pump unconditional love into them. Then, as their “love tank” is full you can spur them on to giving things a go without feeling like they have to be perfect. After all, they’re already perfect to their mamas!
PS – for more hands-on parenting tips and wisdom, go here!