On my drive to and from Pike Creek Psychological Center, I listen to Books on Tape. A lecture series I have particularly enjoyed this year is Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids by Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore (The Great Courses).
Dr. Kennedy-Moore, a mother of four and a licensed clinical psychologist, researches and writes about the lives of children and their families. In this lecture series, Dr. Kennedy-Moore’s warmth, compassion, and common sense toward children and their parents impressed me. A lecture in this series that I found especially interesting is “What Makes Kids Happy?”
This author states, “As parents we cannot make our children happy, but we can help them develop the skills and attitudes that are conducive to happiness.”
Dr. Kennedy-Moore lists three components of “a life well lived,” which she states were described by the psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman. The first is “pleasure,” which she refers to as “pleasure and savoring;” the second is “engagement,” which she refers to as “engagement and flow;” and the third is “meaning.” I would like to focus on “engagement and flow,” emphasizing one aspect the lecturer discusses that impedes engagement/flow: “perfectionism.”
“Engagement,” states Dr. Kennedy-Moore, “means being deeply interested and fully involved in the world…Flow is most likely to occur when “the challenge of a task matches our abilities.” One inhibitor of engagement/flow is perfectionism.
Here are my thoughts about perfectionism: Sometimes parents, in an effort to encourage high standards in their children (an effort that is important), cross the line into demanding perfection from their children. A wise person once said that childhood is a period of extended or protracted practice. That means that it is inevitable, and, indeed, necessary for children to make mistakes. If children never make mistakes, they never learn how to remain calm when mistakes happen and how to correct their mistakes. Dr. Kennedy-Moore states that parents’ demands for perfection deprive their children of the opportunity to struggle with a difficult problem and to persist until they have worked through the problem. (Remember that we are talking about tasks and problems that are appropriate to the child’s age and skill level. If the task is too difficult, the child will become discouraged, which will impede learning; if the task is too easy, the child will not learn anything new, especially the skills of working through a challenge.)
The second problem with demanding perfection is that it crushes a child’s spirit. If the sincere efforts a child makes are never going to satisfy the child’s parents, the child begins to wonder why he or she should bother to try. I have seen adults who—no matter how successful they are in life—are constantly driven by an internalized parent whom they are afraid of disappointing. Where is the joy and where is the “engagement and flow” in that person’s life, if that person’s motivation is not moving toward a challenge to solve, but rather is moving away from or avoiding a challenge, to avoid harsh judgments from a never-satisfied, demanding, internalized parent?
Once, I read that the father of a woman whose invention generated gazillions of dollars in sales, came home from his work every day and inquired of his daughters: “What did you fail at today?” He asked this of his children, not in a negative, harsh, judgmental way, but in an effort to encourage their efforts at success. This wise father knew that it is not whether our children make mistakes in life, but what we as parents teach our children to do about those mistakes. Do we use our children’s mistakes as “teachable moments,” to encourage our children turn them in to learning experiences, so that they can work through challenges? Or do we turn our children’s mistakes into self-defeating, humiliating, shameful experiences, that rob our children of the joys of “engagement and flow,” and lead to discouraged, defeated children, who are on their way to becoming discouraged, defeated adults?
The words of the theme song in the movie, “Zootopia,” are helpful reminders for both parents and children of the importance of not demanding perfection, but, instead, letting our children make mistakes, persist in fixing their mistakes, and then move on to the next challenge:
“I keep falling down; I keep on hitting the ground;
But I always get up to see what’s next.
I won’t give up, no I won’t give in, ‘til I reach the end,
And then I’ll start again.
I want to try, even though I could fail.
Don’t beat yourself up, no need to run so fast;
Sometimes we come last, but we did our best.”