Perfectionism is probably going to be the downfall of our society. It won’t be because Americans are inherently perfectionists; it will be because society itself is a perfectionist. Literally anybody can critique a person nowadays thanks to the Internet, and he doesn’t have to even face you to do it. When did we become such an unforgiving society?
Gifted people are prone to perfectionism. As small children, we actively strive for excellence. We love that “proud parent” look, and we bask in the glory associated with being “first,” “best,” and “winner.” Then we lose. Wow! We don’t like that one bit. As we grow older, we learn to avoid situations in which we might fail. Where avoidance isn’t possible, we procrastinate… literally putting off the possible losing till later. Our parents and teachers are unwitting participants in our perfectionism. They evaluate our efforts, point out our procrastination, and admonish us not to make the same mistakes again. Add to that the constant critiquing EVERY pre-teen and teen gets via social media, and you have a troubled youth on your hands.
We expect this from our teens. The only thing new here is the effect of social media. What is new to me is how early perfectionism is starting. My current third grade just about has itself in knots with fear of failure. I’ve never seen so many elementary students so worried about succeeding. I have been researching and questioning and trying my hardest to figure out what is going on. We’re a private school, and one does have to apply and interview to get in. We do prohibit re-enrollment of students who fail to meet our standards, but we complete an awful lot of intervention before that ever happens. Have we created an atmosphere in which “perfection” is a requirement for admittance? I don’t think so. We encourage students to cut themselves breaks all the time. We point out to students that “failing” in some things is inevitable, but this is a “safe” place to fail. It’s the trying that matters.
Could it be the parents putting the pressure on the kids to excel that causes their perfectionism? Again, I don’t think so. I have seen parents who require perfection; their kids maintain a façade of perfectionism at home, all the while leading a double life here. No, the parents of these students are just as perplexed as I. All of us want to take the pressure off, and we are bending over backwards to let the kids know that we don’t expect perfection.
I even went so far as to gather the elementary up for an impromptu assembly at which I shared fourteen inventions we would not have if their inventors had not made a mistake. I pointed out what their lives would be like without penicillin, potato chips, and chocolate chip cookies – all mistakes.
Public shaming has to be the culprit. But are my third graders experiencing public shaming? I think so. I think it’s unintentional. It comes in the form of nine-year-olds on World of Dance and America’s Got Talent. Every time we herald someone younger-than-ever accomplishing something not usually required of that age, gifted kids listen. They see the bar rise higher, and they are overcome with worry that they will not measure up.
So, how do we combat literally everyone in the world when it comes to raising our child. Well, the first step is not to give everyone in the world access to your child. There are enough parental protections out there right now to keep your child safe on an occasional Internet venture for an assignment or game. The second is to be the voice in your child’s head. We must be louder than all the advertisements designed to make a person feel inadequate as is. We must not let the majority of conversation in our children’s lives be what is read on a social media site. We must create a safety zone that not only allows our children to bring any issue to us, but actually encourages it. And third, and I think most important, we must be a compassionate advisor, a cheerleader, and a shoulder to lean on when “trying again” for our kids. Childhood for them is nothing like it was for us. My daughter just saw the movie Eighth Grade, and she highly encouraged me to see it. It’s not aimed at eighth graders; it’s aimed at parents of eighth graders and society as a whole. She said, “That’s exactly what it’s like for us.” It’s rated R for language and some of the content, but, compared to what you’re 8th grader sees on social media every day, it’s pretty tame. I plan to see it. I want to understand my students better. Perfectionism unchecked is a path to eating disorders, substance abuse, and possibly even suicide. I cannot bear the thought of losing even one of my kids.
(Kay is out of town this weekend. She will submit next week.)