I’ve been working on a project about girls and perfectionism (which is one reason I forgot to post something last month), and I believe that some of the information that’s emerged from that project will interest parents of boys. Since I’ve taught both boys and girls, I was certain that the vast majority of students who were perfectionists were girls. What the research reveals is that there might be a few more girls than boys in the perfectionist column, but in truth there is no gender difference in the incidence of perfectionism. However, there is a marked difference in the way that perfectionism is expressed in boys and girls and that made sense to me.
There are two different types of perfectionism: adaptive in which the student is very careful and conscientious, gets all his work in and does it well; and maladaptive in which the student’s need to turn in perfect work actually interferes with his life.
The maladaptive students are the ones who stay up very late studying and then will get up early as well because they are driven to do everything just right. Sometimes, that student is late turning in work because they are checking and rechecking. They constantly ask the teacher to clarify directions on tests or on lessons to make sure that they are doing the correct work and doing it exactly right. Girls are very verbal about checking with the teacher and wanting to redo work and consequently, can get to be somewhat of a problem. The real problem is that the drive to be perfect means that the student has no life other than school work.
That verbal-check/ask-for-do-over approach didn’t sound like any of the boys I had taught, and research supported my observations. What happens with the perfectionist boy is that he works on his own, perhaps checking with the teacher, but he appears to be less obviously worried about his work. The ultimate outcome is that if he is convinced that he cannot do perfect work, he may simply give up and do no work at all. That was an attitude that I had run into before – the boy who gave up because he didn’t think his work was good enough and it had to be perfect to be good. Consequently, this student has poor grades even though he is very capable.
The common thread in both the male and female perfectionist is that they doubt that they can succeed even with a huge amount of effort. Both parents and schools put a lot of effort into helping children develop good self-esteem so that students will have the confidence to do well in school, and yet that approach doesn’t seem to help these perfectionist kids. Despite all the positive messages we give, they continue to be concerned that they are going to fail and the solution is to work harder.
What fascinated me was what the research revealed about the cause of perfectionism – parents: the hovering, helicopter parent. The more the parent stepped in to help, the less confidence the child had in being able to do the work. I can’t share the research here (it’s behind a paywall), but an article originally published in 2008 covers all the points about the pitfalls of perfectionism. The more the parent steps in to “help” and the more the parent pushes the child, the less confidence the child has in his ability to produce acceptable work. The result is a child who is trying to please the parent by doing perfect work. I have parents who have proudly pointed out this behavior in their child despite the fact that the child is plainly miserable and has no life outside of school or scheduled activities.
In working with parents, I have noticed that the parents who are the guiltiest of this overparenting are the least likely to accept that they are the ones we are talking about. They are proud of the fact that their child works so hard, and cannot see that their child is wrapped in knots trying to please their parents, their teachers, everyone but themselves. These students are so worried about failing that they cannot see that the grade that they have is very good. It isn’t perfect so they have failed.
I think that the real problem is that the child has no control over his life. This is a theory called “locus of control” and those with an internal locus are far happier and competent that those who believe that the world controls them. The child of the hovering parent has never had the opportunity to try his own way because he is either directed by the parent to do it the parent’s way, or he is doing exactly what the teacher told him to do. In either case, he really hasn’t learned anything except how to follow other people’s directions.
Both parents and teachers need to give children the space to find their own solutions and, most importantly, the space to fail. As the old adage states – the problem is not in failing, the problem is in failing to try. No one can be perfect, everyone fails at some level and the sooner that children learn that failure is the first step on the ladder to success, the happier and more productive they will be.
So, to hovering parents everywhere – back off!
Respect your child’s abilities and interests. Let him figure out what works for him. Yes, I know that parents of boys will say that if they do not pressure their sons to work, the boys will do nothing. That is true for a while, but eventually once they realize that they can work their way, they will come around. I promise!