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June 25, 2008

Preventing Extreme Perfectionism in Children

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—While often viewed as a positive quality, perfectionism can also be unhealthy, particularly in children, who face a lifetime of frustration, according to a Smith College researcher whose findings were reported in the summer 2008 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.

In studies throughout the past decade, Patricia Marten DiBartolo, professor of psychology, has found that children who are never satisfied with their efforts set themselves up for failure.

In children, perfectionism can result in an extreme fear of making mistakes, equating mistakes with failure and placing impossible demands on oneself. Simply, in their eyes, nothing they do will ever be good enough.

“It’s very sad,” said DiBartolo. “These children overcomplicate simple tasks and are perpetually dissatisfied. They’re always feeling bad about themselves.”

With that attitude, she says, perfectionist children risk developing anxiety disorders, depression and low self-esteem.

Four strategies for preventing dissatisfaction from mushrooming in your child:

Try not to make children “praise-perfect.”
This means emphasizing a child’s efforts rather than results. For instance, a parent should applaud the hour spent studying for a test rather than the score a child brings home, even if it’s an “A.”

Talk about the concept of the learning curve instead of natural ability.
Few adults get things right the first time around, and children are no different. Kids need to learn patience by example.

Try not to create a culture of comparison between children.
Children only see each other’s results—a classmate who got an “A” when they didn’t—but not the time the “A” student spent studying for the test. It’s easy to make the wrong assumption: everyone else is smarter than me.

Encourage children to embrace their failures and mistakes.
Never shield kids when things go wrong. It’s good to learn early how transformative and useful mistakes can be.

The article on DiBartolo was written by freelance writer Pamela Petro. The Smith Alumnae Quarterly is an award-winning publication with a circulation of 46,000 Smith alumnae and friends. Smith College is the largest undergraduate women’s college in the country, enrolling 2,800 students from nearly every state and 61 other countries. Smith educates women of promise for lives of distinction. By linking the power of the liberal arts to excellence in research and scholarship, Smith is developing leaders for society’s challenges.

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