When a child brings home a 100% on a test or quiz, it's natural for a parent to be proud of their child's success. Yet there are perils that accompany praising perfection, as some students find themselves becoming perfectionists.
What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism can be easily misunderstood. Many people proudly, and inaccurately, self-identify as perfectionists because of their strong work ethic. These individuals often believe in applying themselves, thoroughly checking on their work, and paying attention to detail. These habits are productive. Perfectionism occurs when these productive behaviors are taken to a maladaptive extreme.
Perfectionists equate their self worth with perfection. Anything less than effusive praise and perfect scores leads to self-doubt, frustration, and emotional pain. In students, perfectionism might show itself in hesitancy to engage in unfamiliar tasks out of fear of failure, shutting down in the face of feedback, feelings of jealousy and resentment towards those who succeed, constant comparing oneself to others, and procrastination. Perfection ultimately stands as a barrier between students and the success they long for.
Parents and educators can monitor their language to ensure they are not pushing students towards perfectionism, but instead push them towards healthy study habits. This can be done in part by emphasizing the importance of the process of learning rather than the product. This is not to discredit the importance of getting high marks, but to ensure students understand that both grades and the work it takes to earn them are important.
Parents and educators can ensure they're emphasizing the importance of learning. For example, instead of asking a child "how did you do in school today?” ask the child "what did you learn in school today?". The first question asks students to evaluate their performance, while the latter asks students to focus on the process of learning.
Parents and teachers can and should still praise perfect scores and good grades, just so long as that is not the only time the student hears their praise.When an adult praises one of a student's character traits, such as their tenacity, curiosity, creativity, or enthusiasm, they send a message to students that they are valued as individuals even when there is no tangible evidence of perfection. The students learn to separate their self-worth from the unattainable goal of absolute perfection.
This emphasis on learning and effort rather than outcomes and intelligence is one that aligns closely with Dr. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. Individuals who embrace a growth mindset understand that they can improve through effort and that learning is a goal in itself . Individuals who embrace a growth mindset do not see ability as permanent, but as something that can be improved with perseverance and effort (Gross-Loh, 2016; Mueller & Dweck, 1998). The growth mindset is cultivated in part by focusing on student motivation rather than outcomes (Mueller & Dweck, 1998).
At Math Genie and Reading Genie, teachers make sure to praise the positive study habits and honest efforts of students from before they enter the room until they leave. Praise for accuracy and high scores are balanced with praise for effort, focus, and creativity. Our teachers work to help each student feel valued for who they are and comfortable taking academic risks and learning new things.
Perfect scores are nice, but when perfection is the only goal students lose sight of the value of learning. As parents and educators, we can do our part to make sure our students and children become lifelong learners with critical thinking skills and perseverance to thrive.
Gross-Loh, C. (2016). How praise became a consolation prize. The Atlantic [Web]. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/
Muller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance.Journal of Personal Social Psychology.75(1), 33-52. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037//