If we accept the premise that perfectionists worry they will not be fully accepted unless they are flawless, our job becomes clear. Unconditional acceptance is the antidote to perfectionism. The most essential ingredient in raising resilient children is an adult who loves or accepts them unconditionally and holds them to high expectation. High expectation is not about grades or performance. It’s about integrity, generosity, empathy, and the traits we need our children to have if they are to contribute to the world. Of course, it is also reasonable to expect children to put in a real effort to learn. We also want them to discover their talents, interests, and passions; if we nurture their passion—usually from a distance—they will be motivated to succeed.
Parents need to accept children for themselves, not compare them to siblings, neighbors, or the kid who won a full scholarship to Hotshot College. Such comparisons are toxic to children feeling comfortable about themselves. When you believe you should comment about how your children could do better, base your statements on the fact that they already have done better. Use an example of past successes to remind your children that they are already equipped with the talent, experience, and resources to address this new challenge.
Parents must be cheerleaders. We get excited when our kids “win,” but we have to learn to encourage and praise more effectively. The difference lies in what we get excited about. We tend to praise an outcome or accomplishment. “I am so proud of you for scoring that goal, getting a blue ribbon in the art show, or getting an A on your chemistry test.” The hidden message is “I wouldn’t be as proud if you hadn’t come home with the prize.” Instead we have to encourage the process and show our pride about the fact that they are playing the game of life with integrity, genuine effort and, yes, joy. “I love watching you paint—you seem to care so much about expressing yourself. You are practicing lacrosse a lot—you must love this game. It is good to see you so happy. I know you are struggling with your physics lab, but you sure are hanging in there and trying your best. I am so pleased that you can ask Mr. Hannigan for some extra help.”
One of the best things parents can do is to model for children that no one gets the prize every time. As you put in great effort at work, let your children know how you are trying a new strategy. And when you don’t succeed the first, second, or eighth time, model for them how you learned from each effort and keep plugging. You are not destroyed or worthless, you do not become paralyzed, you become energized! You take disappointment with grace and good humor. Your B+ at work is not a catastrophe. They will see that their B+ in Spanish isn’t either.
Kids’ self-acceptance is fostered when they trust they are competent. If they believe in their ability to manage their own problems, trust their own decision-making capability, and develop their own solutions, they needn’t catastrophize their mistakes. We nurture their competence by getting out of the way (by staying behind the line, as Dean Jones says), and by encouraging them to take control of their own lives. We want them to recognize that they each have a compass and can follow its direction.