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Perfectionist Parents May Do More Harm Than Good

December 11, 1987|MARY CONROY | Conroy is a free-lance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.

"She's a perfect child." "He did a perfect job." "It was a perfect party."

Perfection is an attribute many people strive to attain, and it's often a goal that some parents set for their children. Sometimes the desire to be perfect can be a strong motivation, but failure to achieve that goal can create anxiety, guilt and other undesirable emotions. When carried too far, it sometimes results in sickness or, in severe circumstances, even suicide attempts.

Not all perfectionists take their perfectionism to extremes; some limit it to one field, such as sports or the performing arts. But all perfectionists share one trait: No matter how well they do, they're dissatisfied with themselves.

Child psychologists and psychiatrists are finding ways to help young people who are suffering from their desire for perfection and to assist parents who do not want to pass along their own perfectionistic traits to their children.

Psychologist Colette Davison of the Virginia Frank Child Development Center in Chicago says perfectionists set their sights high, but their drive to achieve isn't prompted by ambition alone. Instead, they're propelled by fear of rejection.

That fear starts early. "As children, perfectionists are afraid they're not going to be loved if they don't do well," Davison said. They feel worthless unless everyone approves of them, adds Dr. Susan Forman, psychology professor at the University of South Carolina. As a result, these children spend all their time straining to please parents, friends and teachers.

But unlike other childhood problems, such as fear of the dark, perfectionism isn't a stage children outgrow. Without intervention, the problem will persist into adulthood. By that time, "You're dealing with very anxious people who don't get much pleasure out of anything," Davison said. "It limits their capacity to enjoy life--and the capacity of everyone around them."

Compete With Themselves

Instead of competing with others, perfectionistic adults compete with themselves. They may have forgotten early experiences, but still live up to expectations their parents would have had. There's no let-up, either: "They strive like crazy all through their life," Davison said.

They also strive, sometimes without realizing it, to make their children perfect.

"You see parents pass on perfectionism to tiny children," Davison said. "Rather than just letting them play with blocks, the parent interferes to get them to make something that looks good."

In fact, many people think perfectionism isn't all that bad.

"I wish just one of my children would be a perfectionist," a Chicago woman complained. Then she explained: She simply wants to see them put more effort into household chores.

The goal setting that's typical of perfectionists is actually a healthy motivator, Davison agreed. But some parents have unrealistic expectations for their children. They hang multiplication flash cards around a child's bed or insist that the child practice football every day. These parents live through their child, experiencing the child's success as their own.

Memories of perfectionistic parents don't die easily.

"I remember bringing home a Spanish exam," said Dr. Katharine Kersey, head of the Child Study Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. "I had a 99 on it. My father asked, 'Why not a 100?' "

Some Are Never Pleased

Many parents pass on perfectionism unconsciously. Some are never pleased with their own work; others can't take compliments because they don't believe they deserve them. Still others refuse to let their children see them making mistakes.

Some teachers also pass on perfectionism unwittingly. By praising only achievement and focusing on the best papers in the class, they give students a strong message--that the only way to get attention is by being perfect.

But not all children exposed to a perfectionistic parent or teacher become perfectionists themselves, and some become perfectionistic without the push of a parent or teacher.

"Some children just seem predisposed toward perfectionism," Forman said. Other children have risk factors that increase their likelihood of becoming perfectionists.

Oldest children are especially vulnerable, Kersey says. Because they have no older siblings for models, "they compare themselves to their parents," she said. "It's such a distance." Those comparisons establish a standard the children just can't reach. In time, they assume that unreachable goals are a routine part of life.

Children of alcoholics and workaholics are also at risk, Kersey says. For these children, perfectionism fulfills two needs: It allows them to please a parent and helps them escape the parent's wrath.

While perfectionism varies from one person to the next, certain characteristics are typical, such as a low tolerance for mistakes. Some children tear up school papers that aren't perfect. Others may lose a card game and throw all the cards on the floor, Kersey said.

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