August 27th, 2018

Back to school –is your child trying too hard to be 'perfect'?

Many schools go back in the UK next week. If your child is starting school for the first time there are some ideas in this blog which will help you to prepare. Even if it’s not your child’s first year at school you should probably be thinking now about how to transition from holiday mode to school routines. There are some useful tips here.

I was talking to a journalist, Anna Tyzack, during the holidays about perfectionism for a piece she was writing for the Telegraph. It got me thinking about the number of parents who worry about their child’s perfectionist tendencies at school. Do you have a child who won’t put up their hand to answer a question because they might get the answer wrong? Or maybe your child labours over a story or drawing for hours only to screw it up because they’re not happy with it.

As your child is embarking on a new academic year are concerned about perfectionism or do you think it will spur your child on to greater achievements? Are you a proud perfectionist yourself? If you are worried about it is there anything you can do?

Last week GCSE results came out and I was struck by the different ways different children I knew received their results. One boy at a highly academic school was quietly satisfied with exceptional results (but was very keen to know if his 8s were nearly 9s) whereas another girl was over the moon excited with ‘merely good’ grades. Perfectionism can be a problem if it means we’re never content with what we achieve. You may well know adults like that. They are driven to achieve ever greater things, get better grades, better qualifications, better positions, but are never satisfied. They never believe that they are good enough.

Research conducted by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill [the University of Bath and York St John University respectively (Study Personality and Social Psychology Review 2015)] found that perfectionism is associated with a wide range of mental illnesses, including depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia, anorexia, insomnia, and even self-harm and suicidal ideation. They also found that rates of perfectionism are increasing, especially among young people and children.

The modern world is geared towards perfectionism. Our society is a highly individualistic one which places heavy emphasis on social comparison and competition, whether we’re talking about  accomplishments or looks. On a daily basis through advertising and social media (which provide platforms for us to put forward perfect versions of ourselves and our lifestyles) we are exposed to the idea that perfection is attainable and that our status and our value are judged by externally-set standards. Schools have of course become even more focused on comparative results with the introduction of league tables and many educators lament the resultant teaching to the test at the expense of a holistic education. Social media offers the possibility of comparisons and judgment about how we raise our children too. An innocent question often brings forth resounding judgment.

But perfection is an abstraction, an impossibility, and pursuing it is a route to unhappiness. Perfectionists, in their pursuit of success are often so focused on avoiding failure that it leads to procrastination. I know I delayed starting writing my book for years because of the notion that it had to be perfect. Perfectionists want to avoid mistakes and often find that they get less done because of their fears. They can become risk-averse. The ability to persevere even when things are going badly is a key element of success, and it's a quality that perfectionists often lack.

There is a difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection and parents can either contribute to perfectionist anxieties or encourage children to do their best and be happy with that. Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings and good parents do not require perfection of their children in everyday behaviour or in their schoolwork, sporting endeavours or artistic activities.

So what can parents do to relieve their children of the burden of perfectionism?

  1. Stop being perfectionists ourselves

What we model is very important so if our children see us beating ourselves up when we make a mistake they will learn that failure is unacceptable. If we give the appearance of perfection they will think they need to be perfect too. We need to consciously model the idea that making mistakes is normal, that it doesn’t diminish us as human beings and is often desirable if it means we learn from them. Point to famous people in sports, science, music and industry who have made many mistakes and not given up. Check out this video on You Tube.

  1. Encourage a growth mindset

You may be aware of Carol Dweck’s now famous work on growth vs fixed mindsets as a way of explaining attitudes toward intelligence and towards failure. Encourage a growth mindset by paying more attention to your child’s efforts, attitudes and strategies for learning as well as their improvements, rather than focusing on their results or grades. Pay attention to the intrinsic benefits and joys of whatever they’re learning, rather than an assessment of their performance. Do NOT call your child clever, or pretty. They need to know that we value them for much more than how they look, that they're courageous, that they're capable, that they are kind people, for so many other things than just the way they look. 

  1. Let go of blame

When something goes wrong, whether in ordinary behaviour or some aspect of performance seek not to judge or blame but to understand and to guide. Do not deal with the matter until everyone is calm and then use the mistakes process:

  • Acknowledge how your child feels about what has happened. Assume they feel bad even if they’re making a show of bravado.
  • Help your child admit what happened. What did they do that contributed to the problem? (Only possible if they are clear there is no judgment)
  • What can they do to make amends?
  • How should they alter their behaviour for the future? Do they need help with this?
  • Help them to accept that they’re human and will make mistakes. Move on.

Wishing you well for a non-perfect new school year.

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September 10th, 2014

Do you use the Naughty Step? Quick tips for a more positive approach to discipline

What parent has not heard of the ‘naughty Step’? It is one of the main sound bites from the Super Nanny program with Jo Frost and indeed if I earnt money for every one of my clients who mentions discipline and the naughty  step in the same sentence I would be a millionaire!

If you are one of many parents who has used it and feels a failure for not being able to make it work, either because your child will not stay there and you end up physically manhandling or he thinks it’s a game and starts laughing at you and blowing raspberries in your face or it has no impact on changing the behaviour – you are not alone! Join the posse of parents who have had the same experience.

Don’t blame yourself if you have experienced this, as the idea of the naughty step is fundamentally flawed.

The naughty step and other punitive and shaming forms of dealing with misbehaviour seem to work in a fashion  - i.e. they can quell a particular behaviour in the moment, but the unintended results are often:

  • resentment and rebelliousness
  • reduced self-worth
  • naughty identity –i.e. the child has a picture of himself as a ‘bad’ person and bad people go on to do bad things, as that is who they think they are
  • he may learn to toe the line in the moment due to fear
  • he does not learn about self-discipline nor understand how to clear up his mistakes

Do you recall the incident last Christmas when a little girl broke a bauble whilst shopping with her Mummy in John Lewis’s and John Lewis then used Face Book to show the world how this little girl had cleared up her mistake?

How effectively you react in the moment depends on your ability to see all misbehaviour as a teachable moment and an opportunity to allow your child to clear up her mistakes.

 

Clearly this little girl’s parents had established a system of positive discipline so she had an opportunity to put right her mistake and will no doubt have felt better for it. I wonder how she would have felt if her parents had punished her by placing her on the naughty step?

A more positive approach to discipline doesn’t amount to permissiveness and it really works. Our experience is that telling off kids or pointing out what they are doing wrong just DOES NOT WORK and often results in the same misbehaviour at a later date.

 So here’s a step by step guide to what to do and say when your child misbehaves:

  1. Approach the matter without anger or judgment. (This may necessitate leaving it until you’re calm).

 

  1. Encourage the child to admit what happened and that it was a mistake. Why was it a mistake?

If child says ‘I didn’t mean to’ don’t lecture her on how that doesn’t matter and that the harm is still done. Descriptively praise the child for not meaning to.

 “I’m so glad that you didn’t mean to. It means a lot to me. It shows me that you know it wasn’t the right thing to do and that maybe you wouldn’t have done it if you’d thought about it.”

Explore with the child (without judgment) how the behaviour happened. Don’t just ask why did you do that? This is so that everyone can learn from the episode –maybe something needs to be altered for the future.

  1. Make amends – set wrongs to rights. Fix someone’s upset feelings. This might include an apology but not unless the child is ready.

 “You’re probably sorry inside your head –when you’re ready you’ll also need to apologise out loud. You’re probably wishing you hadn’t done this.”

Sometimes just clearing up the mess (eg washing the ink off the walls) is enough to help them alter their behaviour ….but shouting at them would not!

  1. Alter behaviour- What can you learn from this? /what can you do differently? What would help you not to do this again? Maybe we need a rule about where you can use your coloured pens?

 

  1. Acceptance - forgive self. We want to teach our children to think ‘when I make a mistake I know how to clear it up.’

Go on  - next time your child gets something wrong try this Mistakes Process and see the results – we guarantee they’ll be much more effective than the naughty step. Let us know what your experiences of using the naughty step have been. What consequences have you used that you think really taught your child something.

Happy parenting!                                

Elaine and Melissa

PS You too should use the Mistakes Process if you feel you got something wrong. This would be very powerful modelling that cleaning up mistakes does not diminish one but is what a good person does.

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