How to Help Kids Overcome Perfectionism

by Kathryn Haydon

Photo credit: JGI/Jamie Grill, Blend Images/Getty Images

Recently I was part of a photo shoot. The preparations were extensive. We had to get hair done, makeup done, and hire a stylist. We purchased and tested the outfits, down to each piece of jewelry. I brought flowers for the background, a potted succulent for the foreground, and a cart full of books and props.

I liked the photo proofs, but still felt they were imperfect. There was a stray bag in the background and a shadow on a face. Good thing we have Photoshop!

Or is it? Think about the first photographs, perhaps your old family black and whites. Often they are crooked and the subjects don’t even crack a smile. We now have the tools to make a photo look perfect and our society uses them liberally to brush out any perceived “imperfection.” No wonder our kids feel increasing pressure to be perfect in so many areas of life!

Even so, there’s a difference between a high professional standard and the perfectionism that grips so many kids these days. Unhealthy perfectionism is fueled by a fear of failure and of not being good enough. It inhibits exploration, creativity, and personal growth, and can lead to stress and anxiety.

Good books and helpful feedback from adults can work together to free our kids from this limiting mindset. Here are three ways to help kids overcome perfectionism, with books to support your efforts.

Words Matter
Though we may not realize it, adult words often reinforce the perfectionist mentality in kids. Because we want them to grow, parents and teachers tend to default to the “room for improvement” comment. We focus on the spelling errors, messy handwriting, and imperfection of a project, rather than the depth of thought that’s behind it. Heard too often, these comments reinforce a child’s belief that “I’ll never be good enough.”

Notice the words you use when responding to your child’s creative or academic work. Try to train yourself to thoughtfully point out specific positives first. This will help build trust so that your child is open to your help when needed. When you’re responding to child-driven creative work, be especially mindful to resist criticizing.

A great example of how words can shift outcomes is Barney Saltzberg’s book Beautiful Oops! and its companion journal, My Book of Beautiful Oops!, which signal that an “oops” can be something wonderful, that mess-ups present opportunities. The use of the word “beautiful” connected with “mistake” shifts our mindset and leads us into the next tip for overcoming perfectionism: seeing mistakes as opportunities.

Mine the Golden Opportunity from Mistakes
Parents and teachers increasingly realize that kids need to “learn to fail.” A friend of mine always tells her perfectionist son that mistakes help his brain grow because they present an opportunity for more learning. This is true in academics or during playtime.

We need to grow kids who can help solve increasingly complex world problems. To come up with novel ideas, they need to be open to trying even when success isn’t guaranteed. We can all learn to be more open by reading about how our favorite inventions came to be.

I love to teach kids about the golden opportunities that arise from mistakes through the stories in Mistakes That Worked: The World’s Familiar Inventions and How They Came to Be, written by Charlotte Foltz Jones and illustrated by John O’Brien.

Kids love reading about how the ice cream cone was invented during the 1904 World’s Fair. The ice cream vendor could have berated himself for making the “mistake” to not bring enough bowls; instead, he was open to the nearby Persian waffle maker’s idea to roll up a waffle and serve ice cream on top. What a win for us all!

Prototype Everything
There’s a myth that creative ideas come in random flashes of insight. But the truth is that there is a process behind creative thinking. In the creative process, prototyping is key. Once you have an idea, you don’t immediately start up a factory and mass produce it.

The waffle man made a prototype. He quickly rolled up a cone for the ice cream and tested it out with customers. The feedback was positive, so they made more.

We tend to hold an idealized view of what success looks like. It is usually picture-perfect in our minds.

But what if we approach each undertaking or project as a first draft?

What if we give ourselves permission to strive for Ish? In Peter Reynold’s compelling picture book, young Ramon likes to draw. But after his older brother makes fun of his drawings, Ramon never feels he can get them right. He crumples his pictures and throws them in the trash. One day he enters his sister’s room and sees that she’s uncrumpled his drawings and hung them gallery-style on her walls. She points to her favorite. “That was supposed to be a vase of flowers but it doesn’t look like one,” Ramon says, dejectedly. His sister delightedly replies, “It looks vase-ISH!” Ramon takes “ISH” to heart; he is released from the fear that blocked him from even trying and he goes on to make many more drawings with confidence and joy.

As we shift our own mindset, choose our words carefully, and look for opportunities in our children’s mistakes and our own, we will create cultures in our homes and classrooms that remove the pressures of perfectionism and lead to genuine individual growth — and new ideas.