Our society is obsessed with perfection, success, popularity, and being the best. How many likes you get on social media, how much money you make, and how perfectly your house is decorated is all of vital importance. We must be perfect, we must be the best, we must be a success. This isn’t a great mentality to have but how it affects your kids is of greater importance.

Most people feel they haven’t reached this perfect place in their life because of opportunities missed or mistakes made when they were young. So naturally it turns into “I want my kid to have every opportunity I didn’t have.” We start trying to live through our children. We press for everything in their lives to be perfect and for them to be perfect. When we have this model of perfection that we are striving for and press our kids to strive towards, we eliminate the permission to fail. So when the inevitable failures do happen, the child doesn’t know how to move on from it in a healthy way.

Perfection in the Early Years

It all starts with the pressure to do everything early. We want our babies to walk early or before they are ready, and get nervous when they don’t spring up. We automatically assume something must be wrong. Once they get on to preschool, we send them to the best, most academic preschools to make sure they get a jump on their education. We press them to be reading by kindergarten or before they even get to kindergarten. We assume that if we get them to start academic learning early, they will do a thousand times better in school later on.

The fact is, children who learn to read early vs children who learn to read later typically even out by 11 years old. Also, those that were forced into formal education methods at an earlier age had lower interest and negative associations with reading and formal education. By forcing them into formal education we strangle their love of learning. Kids need play based learning and the space to learn things through observation. Many European nations don’t start formal education until 7 years old. Even the UK has researchers pressing for a later start for kids. We don’t help our kids when we push them to be beyond what they are developmentally prepared to be.

This in no way means we shouldn’t be reading to them. Research shows that being read to increases literacy competencies and vocabulary. Children who are read to as babies and preschoolers do better in school later on. The main difference here is that we are reading to our kids. It’s an interpersonal time to read with them, talk about the pictures, do the motions, and discuss the story. There is no pressure for them to be the one reading. If you need help with how to make reading fun, check out my post on how to inspire a love of reading in toddlers.

How it continues into Late Elementary and Junior High

The real pressure begins in late elementary and into junior high. Now, we typically aren’t satisfied with our children just being academically smart, we want them to be well rounded. Parents start encouraging all of the extra curriculars as well as maintaining high grades. It isn’t enough for the child to have straight A’s, they must also play soccer, take music lessons, be a part of chess club, and be on student government. If they don’t do these things, they obviously won’t be where they need to be to do well in high school. And if they don’t do well in high school, they won’t do well in college and then they won’t do well in the rest of their lives. Again, it’s a mentality of “they have to have all the opportunities!”

While there are many positive developments that extra curriculars offer, they can also add undue stress. There is a lot of discussion around extracurriculars and if they are good or bad. I lean towards the opinion that they are both. They can be really good if the child is enjoying them and choosing to do them, but the danger comes when the parent is pressuring them to do it or if the child’s quality of life is going down. If you think some of these may be the case go through a series of questions: Are they choosing to do this because the like it, or because they think you want them to do it? Are you really wanting them to do this activity and if so, what are your motives? Are they still getting enough sleep? Are they eating well? Are they stressed because of time restrictions and homework completion?

The extra pressures that get added in High School

Have you noticed how schools start college prep earlier and earlier? I remember filling out a survey on what type of school I wanted to go to in 8th grade. Granted, I went to a college prep charter school but 8th grade seems too early to be focused on college. We start off by telling them they have to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives by the end of 8th grade or start of freshman year to make sure they are taking the right classes to get there. To get into the very best colleges, high school students are supposed to be the most well rounded person ever. They must keep up all of the extracurriculars that they started in junior high and excel at them, have a thriving social life, and add as many AP classes or dual enrollment classes as offered that are on track with the already decided career. The pressure to go to college right away or that college is the only option is set starting Freshman year, no matter the child.

These pressures are not only from the parents, but also from the high schools and therefore from the child’s peers. There is no option but to be perfect. If you aren’t perfect now, your life will go nowhere. It slowly starts trickling into things like needing to look a certain way and eating disorders. It also trickles into needing to be popular and having an identity based on what other people think of you. All of this together creates a very unhealthy mindset.

So why don’t we take a step back. Pushing a child can be a good thing. Some kids need a push to do well. But double check your reasons for pushing. Are you pushing so that they will follow your exact plan for their life? Are you trying to live through your child? It’s time that we start talking with the child and seeing what they want. Look for what they are passionate about. And if they don’t know what they want to do right away, suggest taking some time before going to college. There are awesome programs for gap years that no one talks about. They provide some time to explore and really be sure about a career path. Gap years also mean that they are getting some real world experience and people skills that they wouldn’t necessarily get at college.

So let’s try listening to our children’s dreams before pressing our dreams for them onto their shoulders. Let’s learn about growth and development milestones before forcing new skills prematurely. And let’s prove to them that we are on their side and support them no matter where their life takes them.

9 Comments

  1. I agree that kids have too much pressure placed on them. As parents, we want to do the best thing for them. Make sure they have the best opportunities, get introduced to different things, and reach their full potential. Unfortunately, in doing trying to that, we put too much on them. I’m guilty of this myself. I could see myself in some of the things you wrote about, but I can also see the harm it could cause. Thank you for writing this as something for parents, including myself, to keep in mind.

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  2. Such a good reminder! We have seen such strong perfectionist tendencies in our oldest so I am constantly trying to be aware of this.

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  3. I agree 1000%. As a high school teacher, I see way too many stressed out kids that are far too worried about taking classes they don’t want to take just because someone told their parents it will help them get into college. We need to let kids be kids and develop at a non-stressful pace.

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  4. Perfection is so overrated! I don’t have kids, but my parents pushed us to be perfect. There are more important things and honestly, I think it’s sad. Perfection is an unobtainable goal.

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  5. You speak the truth! But it’s a hard trap to avoid. Finding the balance between wanting our children to excel, encouraging their interests but also allowing them to just be kids is difficult. My 5yo is extremely intelligent and I find myself setting the bar way too high for him. Intellectually he is above average but not socially, and I forget that. My expectations for him are unrealistic. It’s a daily struggle for me!

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  6. Encourage their interests and praise and reward them for effort, particularly focused effort on improving a specific skill.

    Few people have genuine innate talent. Most people have the ability to be great at something, if they work hard enough on systematically improving their skills and capability.

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  7. I have been learning this. I’m listening to a book right now, and the author has been talking about how it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond, rather than a little fish in a big pond. My oldest son is very bright, but not gifted. He’s right on that line where he could go into an accelerated program if he wanted to, but doesn’t need to. I had been thinking about pushing him to work harder so he could go this route, but now I’ve changed my mind. I would rather him be confident in his education, rather than struggling to keep up. Good insight!

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  8. I completely agree – it’s no wonder our kids are so unhappy. The bar is set waaay too high – we wouldn’t even be able to meet those standards, why do we expect them from our children? This post was a great reminder for me to take a step back and take a deep breath.

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  9. A great read! I try not to push my daughter (2.5) into doing anything she doesn’t enjoy but I’m also aware of the areas in which she is lacking. That might sound ridiculous, indeed as I wrote it it sounds really stupid, but what I mean is that she is hugely into role play which I encourage (we’re buying her a toy kitchen for Christmas) because she enjoys it, but because most of her play is role based I worry that she doesn’t practice her STEM skills, so I look for alternative toys and objects to try to engage her in these sorts of activities. As an example, she’s not overly keen on playing with wooden blocks but one day in the bathroom she started stacking toilet rolls, so I brought 18 rolls downstairs for her to play with instead which she loves!

    As a side note, it baffles me that here in the UK that 14 year old high school students must choose subjects for their GCSE’s which can then limit what subjects you can do at A-Level (age 16-18) which can then limit which university degrees they can do. It seems to me that 14 is a very young age to be making decisions that can effect your life.

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