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Embracing imperfection

10 tips on how to help your child embrace imperfection and thrive

NEWS 27 Nov 2023

Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first TV job and was told by her bosses that she was ‘unsuitable’ for a career in television. J K Rowling’s books were rejected by 12 short-sighted publishers before she was finally offered a publishing contract and Harry Potter was unleashed on the world.

Michael Jordan, arguably one of the greatest basketballers of all time, owns up to missing 9,000 shots in his career and losing around 300 games. On 26 occasions when he was trusted to take a game clinching shot, he missed.

“I’ve failed over and over again in my life – and that is why I succeed,” he says.

These famous fail stories were part of a lesson for Year 9 students at Haileybury to help them understand that even the rich and famous who appear to lead high-achieving, perfect lives aren’t actually perfect at all.

Pursuing perfection is exhausting and unrealistic and it’s a mindset that can have a wide-ranging impact on physical and mental wellbeing, relationships, school life and beyond. While it can emerge in children at any age, it can become more evident during the years when academic achievement and pressure to look a certain way become more pressing in a young person’s mind.

How can parents recognise if their child is focusing too much on perfection and the unachievable?

“At the more extreme end, students might refuse to go to school or they are reluctant to start or complete schoolwork because they don’t know how they will ever achieve the standards they set themselves. So, they procrastinate,” says Elicia Clarke, Psychologist at Haileybury’s Brighton campus.

“They won’t try new things for fear of failing and they may also downplay their achievements because, in their mind, whatever they do is never good enough. In terms of appearance, students might be critical of how they look and dress compared to their peers, and they might not want their photo taken or to join in social activities because they don’t look how they think they should look.”

The good news is there are plenty of things parents can do and say to help children manage the search for perfection says Brent Ritchie, Head of Boys Middle School, Haileybury City Campus.

Here are the top 10 suggestions for parents from Elicia and Brent

  1. Encourage and remind your child to focus on doing their best, rather than being the best. “It’s better to be the student who has done their best and gets 75% than the student who doesn’t try so hard and gets 85%. Focus on effort rather than the result,” says Brent. Focus on your child’s best and celebrate that.
  2. Help children understand that the world isn’t perfect and sometimes they will fail. “Sometimes we work hard and fail. We’ve all had experiences of throwing everything we have at something and we still don’t achieve it. It happens — but parents can try and protect children from that. It’s okay to help them understand that the world isn’t perfect,” says Brent.
  3. If your child is procrastinating and their schoolwork is falling behind because they’re aiming for perfection and afraid to fall short, discuss why starting or completing an assignment is difficult for them. “Suggest to them that they break the task down into smaller, manageable chunks, rather than focusing on the overwhelming end product,” says Elicia. “Or suggest they make a start for just 10 minutes and see how they go. Once they are on a roll, they can keep going.”
  4. Have clear study boundaries so that children don’t spend too long focused on an assignment, project or important piece of work. “Children must have other things in life and not become study robots,” says Brent. “If they are spending too much time on one thing, tell them they have a set time on that particular task and then they must move on to something else.”
  5. If children are afraid to try new things for fear they won’t live up to their expectations or those of the people around them, remind them you love them unconditionally and an outcome has no bearing on their life or how you feel about them.
  6. For younger children, find small ways they can learn to make mistakes in situations that don’t feel overwhelming, so they become more comfortable with trying something and not getting it perfect. “If a younger child pours themselves a drink, parents often rush in to help so they don’t spill anything. Let them spill the milk or juice, let them know it doesn’t matter and teach them to clean up the mess and try again,” says Elicia.
  7. According to your child’s age, have conversations with them when things don’t go well for you and you don’t achieve something you’ve aimed for. Let them know it hasn’t worked out and you’re OK with that. If your mistake has impacted someone else, let children know it’s important to own that mistake and apologise.
  8. Praise effort, rather than a skill or outcome, and don’t over-praise. If a younger child colours a picture, praise the effort they’ve put in but don’t go overboard and say ‘that’s the best picture I’ve seen in my whole life’. They’ll feel they can never match that so won’t try.
  9. Many of us don’t love uncertainty so help your child feel comfortable sitting with uncertainty when they try something new and don’t know how well or not it will go,” says Elicia. “Suggest they see how things turn out. They might assume the worst-case scenario but encourage them to think about what other possibilities might happen.
  10. Help children begin to work out whose opinions really matter – and whose don’t. Perfectionists often have a fear of what other people might think about what they have or haven’t done or what they do or don’t look like. Help them figure out whether those people’s opinions really matter. And how are those people actually likely to react or think – chances are they won’t even notice or react how your child thinks they will.

So, if you notice your child is increasingly focused on achieving the perfect assignment, the perfect performance on the sports field, or they are aiming for the unrealistic version of perfection that appears on social media, there are plenty of steps you can take to give them a reality check and support.