A major dilemma young people face is a desire to be perfect. This obsession hinders them and can have disastrous results. For example, consider this letter I received from a parent:
“My son is six years old and is going to be in the second grade. He is developing a very pessimistic attitude toward life. When he has to do homework and does it, he becomes worried that he did not do it right. He is very intelligent and good in his studies. Sometimes he worries so much that he cannot sleep at night. The first thing he needs in the morning is assurance, and even that does not stop him from worrying. He starts to worry over very small things. Do you know how we can help him overcome this?”
I responded to this inquiry from a parent, saying: A person cannot learn and be perfect at the same time. Teach your child to implement first, and then aim for continual improvement-but never for perfection. A focus on perfection interferes with learning and can actually impair performance. When the focus is on perfection, the person always loses because humans are not perfect. In contrast, when the focus is on improvement, you are always a winner and satisfaction and performance increase.
The fear of failure created by a perfectionist attitude can significantly limit a person’s success because the person becomes unwilling to take risks. In addition, a focus on perfection has led many young people to adopt the idea that they have to be perfect for people to like them or accept them. The eating disorders of bulimia and anorexia nervosa in teenage girls often originate from this belief. The perception that rejection will follow if a person makes a mistake-the sense that one has to be perfect to be accepted-is an idea that plagues too many young people. Striving for perfection, rather than for continual improvement, also leaves young people reluctant to admit mistakes or apologize when in the wrong.
In extreme cases of perfectionism, children may stop maturing altogether. They simply give up. The belief that they must be perfect can become so tyrannical that these young people develop anxiety attacks, as in the above situation. Aiming at perfection reinforces their counterproductive thinking pattern that they cannot perform or engage in the activity because they will not be good enough. The next stage is total paralysis as in the following incident.
“In the first grade, when I finished my picture of the sun in the sky, I brought it to my teacher. He looked at it and said, ‘There is no such thing as a green sun. The sun is yellow. Everyone knows that.’ He said that my picture wasn’t realistic, that I should start over. Nightfall came to me in the middle of the afternoon. The next year, my second-grade teacher said to the class, ‘Draw something-anything you want.’ I just stared at my paper and when the teacher came around to my desk, I could only hear the beating of my heart as he looked at my blank page. He touched my shoulder with his hand and whispered, ‘How big and thick and nice your cloud is.'”
When our daughter was first learning to speak, she made the sound of “s” in a nonstandard way. We called attention to it-only once. For the next several weeks, every time she spoke any word that contained the “s” sound, she hesitated and tried to make the sound perfectly. We were witnessing the first stage of stuttering. We never again called attention to her speech, and my wife and I were greatly relieved when her natural speech pattern returned.
Learning to speak comes naturally. When attention is called to any activity, the brain begins to focus on it-resulting in an interruption of that natural process. You can experience this the next time you walk down a familiar flight of stairs. You normally do not focus on the activity. However, if you place your attention on the details of stepping one leg down in front of the other, you will start to trip.
When an infant first attempts to walk, we offer encouragement because we know that learning comes by degrees. We do not expect the child to stand up and walk in one day. Similarly, we encourage an infant to speak even though the sounds are only approximately right.
When humans are born, we know virtually nothing. If we knew everything, we would not experience one of the great joys of living-learning! To learn anything, we must explore new territory. It is inevitable that mistakes occur when learning to do something new. The process continues throughout life. Making errors is a natural part of living and growing.
So embrace practice, but never focus on perfection.
Dr. Marvin Marshall is an American educator, writer, and lecturer. He is the author of Discipline Without Stress, Punishments or Rewards – How Teachers and Parents Promote Responsibility & Learning and Parenting Without Stress – How to Raise Responsible Kids While Keeping a Life of Your Own. Visit http://www.MarvinMarshall.com for more information.