An interesting perspective on parenting! Dave
As a former admissions officer for two “elite” schools — one Ivy and one West Coast Ivy-equivalent — I am in a unique position to offer some insights for parents that may be of help in raising healthful teens. Exasperated as much by the reaction to a couple of recent teen suicides as I am to the acts themselves, I offer my views here not because I’m an expert in suicide-prevention: I’m not. I offer this post because we’re all looking for some way to help our community’s kids. My Facebook feed upsets me when people surmise that these suicides happened because of mental illness, or tiger parents, or school stress, or, or, or … because we just. don’t. know. I don’t think any family from the last suicide cluster came forward with a definitive reason, and I doubt anyone did now. We don’t know what drove these kids to take their lives — but we do know what’s hurting our kids now. In fact, this local teen, Martha Cabot, sums it up pretty well: “Parents, calm down.”I want to tell every parent reading this post that you need to assume, right now, that your child is not getting into Harvard no matter what he or she does. (And no, he’s not getting into Stanford either, or Yale, or Dartmouth, or MIT. Probably not UC Berkeley either. No, I’m not kidding.) Your kid isn’t getting into the college you think he is.
What? So-and-so’s child is at Princeton right now? and got what on his SATs? and did those activities? Hmmm. Interesting. Sure, you can prove me wrong with some examples. And I can prove myself right with a hundred more. Stanford’s rate of admission was below 5% last year. Do the math.
In the spirit of “I want to do something,” I offer below some Q & A that I hope y’all read and take to heart. These are real questions asked by real parents ofreal kids I know within the past year. I didn’t answer these questions at the time exactly like I did below, but I answer them here and now based on a combination of my expertise in admissions (noting that nothing I say here should be construed as official advice or information given on behalf of any school) as well as my experience as a community leader and parent.
And be forewarned: I’m going to be a bit of a wise-ass, ’cause we all need to calm down like Martha says, which also means “lighten up” in my book.
But also, I promise a reward at the end: questions that I wish people would ask me instead. And I think — I hope — it’s some valuable stuff.
Q – freshman parent: “My child is taking honors math. Homework is three hours per night. If I ask for her to be pulled out of honors math, am I killing her chances of going to Stanford someday?
A – if your 9th grader has three hours of homework in one night for one subject, I call that a problem. This isn’t a college admissions question; it’s a question of time management. Your kid has, what, five, six academic subjects? Last I checked, there aren’t 18 hours/night to do homework. Call the teacher. Call the school. Call me crazy, but don’t put your kid in classes like that. Three hours of homework total in one night is a lot. WTH?
Q – sophomore parent: “My son is getting a B in English. What can I do to salvage the situation so that he still has a shot at the Ivies? Would it help to send him on something like an exotic summer service trip? Does that kind of stuff offset the grade?”
A – I note you asked how you can salvage the situation. You can’t. Do you know why? You’re not the student. Let me repeat that: You’re. Not. The. Student. It’s not your job. Your kid’s grade is your kid’s job, and, if it needs to be “salvaged,” your kid has to do it. As for sending your kid to Timbuktu to milk one-eyed yaks for orphan food, Imma just roll my eyes at that and salvage myself from answering.
Q – junior parent – “So how much do grades matter? Do kids with Bs still get into the Ivies?”
A – grades matter. And kids with Bs still get into the Ivies. But your kid probably won’t, because have you seen admissions statistics? They’re dire. Let’s keep it real.
Q – senior parent – “My kid is applying to 19 colleges.”
A – okay, that wasn’t even a question, but excuse me while I go scream into a pillow and maybe vomit.
Q – junior parent – “I had to sign a form to let my son take more than the recommended number of APs, but I had to do it because he needs to stay competitive.”
A – that also wasn’t a question, that was an excuse. Limits exist for a reason. And let’s be honest here “he needs to stay competitive” is English for “I’m competing with every other parent because if my kid gets into Harvard I Win.” If you’re bragging about how hard your kid is working, preface it by saying “I’m making my child suffer on purpose.” Let’s all be honest here.
Q – freshman parent – “How many APs does a kid need to take to get into Yale? I mean, he could end up with 12 or 15 depending, but I’m hearing some kids have 22. What’s a good target number?”
A – a good target number is zero, because your kid isn’t getting into Yale. Seriously, did you not get this memo yet?
Q – I don’t think I put pressure on my kid! Do you think I am?
A – Well, you do wear that Harvard sweatshirt around a lot, and your house is flying the Harvard flag (literally). You might want to think about toning it down so that you don’t have to full-scale remodel when your child doesn’t get in.
Okay, enough of the joking around; my point is made. (And I am not joking: those are questions that I am asked on a pretty routine basis.)
Here is what I wish parents would ask:
Q – how much sleep does my teen need each night?
A – at minimum, teens need nine hours per night of sleep for optimal health. (I’m not a sleep expert either, but I trust the Mayo Clinic.)
Q – so how much homework does that leave time for?
A – if school lets out at 3, and your kid needs to get up at 7 am, let’s see … that means he needs to go to bed at 10 pm, so that leaves 7 hours to do a sport or other after school activity, eat dinner, hopefully hang out a little, and do homework.
Q – my kid has more homework than 7 hours’ worth, so what do I do?
A – act up. Call teachers. Bug the school. And if all of that fails, send your kid to bed anyway, and tell him you’ll love him even when his teacher marks him down for unfinished work. You may be surprised what happens when you call a teacher and say “my son worked on this for two hours and still couldn’t finish, so I sent him to bed.” Oftentimes, it’s a reality check the teacher needs and welcomes.
Q – my kid won’t go to bed at 10 even if his homework is finished. That’s too early.
A – take away all of his electronics at 9:55 p.m. and charge them in your bedroom. Disallow screen time; remember, you set the rules of your house. If you say to go to bed at 10, your kid had better go to bed at 10. You’re the boss.This is no different from when they’re 2 and you’re forcing a nap; your child needs rest, and if they learn while still in high school how to take care of themselves with proper sleeping habits, they’ll be more successful when they do go away to school.
Q – everyone is signing forms to allow their kids to take more APs than are allowed. What do I do?
A – don’t sign the form. See above. You’re the boss. And while I’d like to assure you that taking two fewer APs isn’t going to make an admissions difference, I can’t do that. With so many schools having wee little admissions rates, nobody can. It’s kind of a crap shoot. But kids taking beyond the recommended amount of APs doesn’t end well. They have too much work, get too little sleep, and usually still don’t get into Ivies. So it’s still not worth it.
Q – where should my kid go to college if he’s interested in X?
A – this varies, but I do wish that people would approach me to engage in meaningful discussion over college selection. Once, I appalled a parent who said her daughter is interested in sports journalism by suggesting U Florida, which remains highly regarded in that field. “A state school?” the mom repeated in utter shock. Let’s all be open-minded here. There are a lot of colleges. And some of the best schools in subjects in which your kid’s interested may not be Ivies. Keep open minds and create a list with a range of possibilities and options — all of which your kid would love to attend if admitted.
Q – how much do grades and scores matter?
A – they matter, of course they do. But they’re not all that matter. Schools could fill with perfect SAT scores and perfect grades, but they don’t. If you want to see how your child measures up to any school, schools often publish ranges of scores and grades accepted.
Q – how do I motivate my child to get straight A’s? (I wish, actually, the question was: how do I set reasonable academic expectations for my child?)
A – you don’t. Encourage your child to do his or her best work. Check in often to feel out how much and how well they’re learning. Offer support if your child is struggling. And when your child gets a B, C, or D — or even if he fails — don’t overreact. Review mistakes. Ask the child to fix them, even if it’s not for credit. Ask how he feels about his performance and what he might do differently next time. Never express disappointment, but it’s okay to encourage improvement. There’s a line, and you know it. Expecting A’s is pressure. Expecting learning is awesome.
Q – my kid has perfect grades and scores. Doesn’t that guarantee admission?
A – nope. Unfortunately, perfection is not so rare these days, especially in competitive school districts where GPAs exceed 4.0 because of APs or IBs. In truth, I’m pretty sure Harvard could fill with students with perfect SATs and 4.0s. It doesn’t. Your kid being academically strong certainly matters, but numbers aren’t all that matters. Perfection isn’t a worthy aim, and it doesn’t guarantee anything.
Q – I attended an Ivy. Doesn’t this mean my kid is more likely to get in? Why shouldn’t I hope for the same as I had for my kid?
A – it’s a different world. Admissions statistics when you attended were more favorable to admission, and it was easier to get in without being perfect and absent a resume of accomplishments. There are plenty of practically perfect in every way “legacy” kids getting rejected from every Ivy. I hold an Ivy League graduate degree (my undergraduate degree is not), and what I tell my kids is that if they really want to attend an Ivy, there’s always graduate school.
But there’s another problem with this question: “shouldn’t I hope for the same as I had for my kid?” Nope. You shouldn’t hope for your kid to live your life. You shouldn’t assume that because you went to Harvard, your kid has to measure up to that standard. Some of the most successful people I know here in Silicon Valley didn’t go to Harvard, didn’t go to college “on-time” even, or even didn’t finish or didn’t go. If you are a success who attended Harvard, Harvard doesn’t get credit for your success. You do. Making the point to your child that you’re a success because you love what you do and are knowledgeable in your field is more valuable than a credential from your school. (And if you don’t love what you do … are you really setting a good example for your child? does that have anything to do with your alma mater?)
Q – so many schools aren’t accessible, including the UCs, even for kids who seem to have a good profile. What do I do to make sure that my kid gets in somewhere?
A – you don’t do anything. Your kid needs to work with her school’s college counselors to compile a realistic list of colleges to which to apply — as well as other options. Sure, they can reach for some unlikely goals (e.g., Harvard); but there should be some on the list that are more sure bets than not (non-UC/other state schools, for example). Don’t call these “safety schools.” Your kid should be happy to attend any college on the list and should have compiled the list with their interests in mind: large or small? urban or rural? specific programs? And encouraging exploration of gap years, national service programs, etc. is a good idea too. Telling them that they don’t need to go to college immediately (that you are flexible in the timing) helps to offset college rejections better than anything. They need to know this isn’t a one-shot deal.
Q – what should my kid to do have the best shot at admission to a good school?
A – he should engage with his learning, do some things outside of school that he enjoys, and write an application that reflects who he is as a person, honestly (what he wants to say — not what he thinks admissions officers want to hear). There is no cheat-sheet checklist of things that, if your kid does them, will garner admission assuredly. There are kids at Harvard who’ve done it all and kids who’ve done a lot less but are just kinda awesome kids. There’s no secret sauce other than what’s already in your kid.
Q – I didn’t take your advice, and my kid still got into Berkeley. Are you often proven wrong?
A – sometimes, and happily so. Congratulations! Of course some kids still get into great schools. I’d be congratulating your kid just as much if she was about to begin attending Foothill Community College, though, or taking a gap year. Still — your child certainly worked hard for that or for any college admission, and that deserves a big “hurrah!”
Q – how do I take pressure off of my kid?
A – don’t tell them from the day they’re born that Harvard is the best school, because, when he doesn’t get into Harvard, he’ll think he failed. Tell them all along that the best plan for them is the one that feels good — maybe a gap year, maybe even working for a few years before college, as it’s widely known that the best age to attend college is 26. If they do plan to go straight through school, encourage a good fit: an environment in which they want to live and learn for four years (or more — college doesn’t have to be completed in four years). Tell them that there are lots of options. And don’t pin your own hopes and dreams to them. It’s not your life, it’s your kid’s life — and make sure she knows that you’re proud of her no matter what.
If you want your child to be successful — we all do! — define success without attaching it to an outcome. Success doesn’t mean that your child gets certain grades, scores, or college admissions. There is no “result” that guarantees success, or even happiness for that matter. For me, success is my kids thriving in a learning environment, being challenged but not made miserable, and making choices that help them to achieve their goals. But most of all, success is their self-motivation and self-acccountability absent my pressure. That carries over to the work force more than any grades ever will.
We can’t tell our kids enough that we love them just as they are, and that we don’t expect perfection. In fact, we don’t even expect anything close. We need to tell them that when they screw up, we’re there without judgement and with nothing but loving guidance and acceptance. We need to tell them that our expectation is for them to live fulfilling lives and that there is no achievement objective correlated with that. We need to tell them that we care that they’re learning, and that grades don’t matter as much as their engagement with the subject matter and how they feel about their performance. We need to accept that sometimes them doing their best is, actually, getting a C. We need to stop overbooking them for afterschool activities. We need to lower our expectations for academic performance. We need to make them sleep. We need to let them be children. We need to stop competing through them.
We need to hold our kids tightly, tell them we accept them as-is, will love them whatever happens in their lives, and then, collectively…
we need to let Harvard go.
Post-publication note: This posts seems to have reached a lot of people who have a lot of strong reactions to it. I think the comment that reached me most on another person’s Facebook page is one from a parent who thinks I am encouraging mediocrity. The snarky part of me wants to tell the dude he’s right, that I tell my kids “aim low.” But the truth is, this post is far from encouraging mediocrity or “settling” for anything less than a child can feel good about achieving. As a Palo Alto parent, I am tired of our culture of ‘achievement’ as defined by grades, scores, college admissions, and the like. And I am unapologetic about that. I have worked with our community’s teens as a coach, as a youth minister, as a mentor, and as a parent, and I encourage every kid to be their best self. That means being proud of their work, whether in the classroom, on the playing field, and/or in the world. Do I think they need to engage in competition for one of those 15 slots at Stanford (there is no fixed number, and I wouldn’t know it if there were) by trying to outwit, outplay, and outlast (to borrow “Survivor” lingo)? Nope. And beyond that, there are going to be times when our kids just don’t want to work hard because they’re kids and continue to push boundaries. They’re going to blow off studying for a test. They’re going to fail something. Good. That’s right — I said good. Their mistakes teach them that actions have consequences and that their effort ties to their outcomes. We can’t give them that with carrots or with sticks. They’ll figure it out. They want to do well — as they define it. (They know what’s up with college admissions without us even getting involved, parents.) And the more they figure out for themselves, with no message from us other than “we take you as you are and want you to be healthy and fulfilled,” the healthier our kids are going to be. I want nothing but the best for our village’s kids — for any kids— and I stuck my neck out there with the post because I refuse to define the “best” as it has been anymore. The best for our kids is no more of them self-harming in any way, and I feel like we can alleviate some of that by changing our tone.
Thanks for reading this and for your engagement over what really isn’t about college admissions but, rather, about our kids’ health.
An interesting video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LLnY_JBAAg
Attacks against girls attending school or seeking access to education appear to be increasing around the world despite legal protections of gender equality, the United Nations said in a report issued on Monday.
The report, posted on the website of the United Nations Human Rights Council, said attacks on schools have occurred in at least 70 countries from 2009 to 2014, and that many of the attacks were “specifically directed at girls, parents and teachers advocating for gender equality in education.”
It also said that based on United Nations data, an estimated 3,600 attacks against educational institutions, teachers and students were recorded in 2012 alone.
Although constitutional guarantees are enshrined in more than 140 countries and a global consensus prevails on the right to education for all, the report said, “attacks against girls accessing education persist and, alarmingly, appear in some countries to be occurring with increased regularity.”
The report, conducted by the Women’s Human Rights and Gender section of the Human Rights Council, was an assessment based on a compilation of research, including by other United Nations agencies and outside rights groups and academics.
It did not provide year-by-year or country-by-country data to substantiate its assertion of an increase, but highlighted some of the brazen assaults on women and girls in school that have captivated the world’s attention in recent years.
They included the Pakistani Taliban’s assault on a school in Peshawar last December that killed at least 132 uniformed schoolchildren, both boys and girls; the abduction last April of nearly 300 schoolgirls in northern Nigeriaby Boko Haram, the radical Islamist insurgent group; the 2012 shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for her education activism; and numerous episodes of poisoning and acid attacks on schoolgirls in Afghanistan between 2012 and last year.
In conflict zones, the report said, women and girls have sometimes been abducted or forcibly recruited precisely because they were educated. It cited as an example the Lord’s Resistance Army, the renegade guerrilla force of Central Africa, which has captured secondary school girls in northern Uganda known for their literacy and mathematics skills, making them “valuable recruits for military communications work.”
In addition to attacks on schools, the report said, “many more girls around the world routinely experience gender-related violence and other forms of discrimination that limit or prohibit the free exercise of their right to education.”
In Central America, for example, the report said, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees has documented cases of sexual violence, threats and harassment of girls by criminal gangs, forcing them to abandon school.
The report also spoke of what it called the ripple effect from attacks on girls’ education. Not only do they affect “the lives of the girls and communities who are directly concerned,” the report said, “they also send a signal to other parents and guardians that schools are not safe places for girls.”
The report is to be submitted for use in a coming United Nations study on the role of women in peace and security since 2000, when the Security Council adopted what is considered a landmark resolution on gender equality.
The study is being led by Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan lawyer, rights advocate and former under secretary general who has specialized on issues concerning children and armed conflict and violence against women. It is to be released before a high-level United Nations review, scheduled for October, on progress since the Security Council resolution 15 years ago.
Dr. Mark Bertin is no A.D.H.D. pill-pusher.
The Pleasantville, N.Y., developmental pediatrician won’t allow drug marketers in his office, and says he doesn’t always prescribe medication for children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Yet Dr. Bertin has recently changed the way he talks about medication, offering parents a powerful argument. Recent research, he says, suggests the pills may “normalize” the child’s brain over time, rewiring neural connections so that a child would feel more focused and in control, long after the last pill was taken.
“There might be quite a profound neurological benefit,” he said in an interview.
A growing number of doctors who treat the estimated 6.4 million American children diagnosed with A.D.H.D. are hearing that stimulant medications not only help treat the disorder but may actually be good for their patients’ brains. In an interview last spring with Psych Congress Network, an Internet news site for mental health professionals, Dr. Timothy Wilens, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, said “we have enough data to say they’re actually neuroprotective.” The pills, he said, help “normalize” the function and structure of brains in children with A.D.H.D., so that, “over years, they turn out to look more like non-A.D.H.D. kids.”
Medication is already by far the most common treatment for A.D.H.D., with roughly 4 million American children taking the pills — mostly stimulants, such as amphetamines and methylphenidate. Yet the decision can be anguishing for parents who worry about both short-term and long-term side effects. If the pills can truly produce long-lasting benefits, more parents might be encouraged to start their children on these medications early and continue them for longer.
Leading A.D.H.D. experts, however, warn the jury is still out.
“Sometimes wishful thinking gives us hope that the impressive short-term relative benefits of medication over other treatments will persist beyond childhood, but I haven’t seen it,” said James Swanson, director of the Child Development Center at the University of California at Irvine. Dr. Swanson, a co-author of a landmark federally funded study, the Multimodal Treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, said that follow-up research found overall improvement but no greater long-term benefits after three years for children who were treated with medication compared to those who weren’t. One possible reason, as the report noted, was that many children refuse to continue taking medication after a year or so, something most parentsof such children well know.
Research has shown that the brains of people with A.D.H.D. on average look and function differently than those who don’t have the disorder, particularly when it comes to processing two important neurotransmitters: dopamine and norepinephrine. For most people with A.D.H.D., stimulants can temporarily boost focus, motivation and self-control by increasing the availability of these chemical messengers. The question is whether these effects can last once the drugs have left the bloodstream.
In arguing for “normalization,” Dr. Wilens cited a major review in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in late 2013, which looked at 29 brain-scan studies. Although the studies had different methods and goals, the authors said that, together, they suggested that stimulants “are associated with attenuation of abnormalities in brain structure, function, and biochemistry in subjects with A.D.H.D.”
But other A.D.H.D. experts challenge this conclusion. Dr. F. Xavier Castellanos, director of research at the New York University Child Study Center, called assertions that stimulants are neuroprotective “exaggerated,” adding: “The best inference is that there is no evidence of harm from medications – normalization is a possibility, but far from demonstrated.”
A.D.H.D. is an exceptionally controversial diagnosis, with particular controversy zeroing in on researchers, including Dr. Wilens himself and some of the authors of the 2013 report he cited who have received financial support from pharmaceutical firms. In an email, Dr. Wilens said he had not received “any personal income” from the pharmaceutical industry since 2009.
As several experts noted, a major impediment to determining the long-term impacts of A.D.H.D. medication is that a “gold-standard” study would require researchers to assign children randomly to groups that either received medication or didn’t. Such a practice has been deemed unethical due to the widespread belief that the medication can help struggling children, at least in the short-term.
And other research has raised new concerns. One peer-reviewed 2013 study co-authored by Dr. Swanson suggested that the stimulants may change the brain over time so as to undermine the long-term response to the medication and even exacerbate symptoms when people aren’t taking them.
Dr. Peter Jensen, the former associate director of child and adolescent research at the National Institute of Mental Health, cautioned that parents should not try to force children with A.D.H.D. to take medication when they don’t want to, adding that “most kids don’t want to.”
Dr. Jensen, who now heads the REACH Institute, a national nonprofit organization concerned with children’s mental health, once surveyed 100 parents of sons and daughters in their 20s who had been diagnosed with A.D.H.D., asking what made the most difference.
“Eighty percent of them said ‘Love your child. Help him or her advocate for themselves, and find a doc who’ll work with you through thick or thin whether you medicate or not,” Dr. Jensen said. “Only a minority of these parents mentioned medication.”
Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent and author and co-author of seven books, including the forthcoming “What Everyone Needs to Know about A.D.H.D.” (Oxford University Press), co-authored with Stephen Hinshaw, Vice-Chair for Psychology, Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco.
Katherine Ellison is an author or co-author of four books about A.D.H.D. and education, including “Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention.”
Girls are academically outperforming boys in many countries around the world — even in places where women face political, economic or social inequalities.
A new report from Dr. Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Glasgow in Scotland andDavid C. Geary of the University of Missouri found that in 2009, high school girls performed significantly better on an international standardized test in 52 out of 74 studied countries.
The researchers set out to explore the connection between academic achievement and a country’s levels of gender inequality, speculating that girls might do worse on the Programme for International Student Assessment in countries where they are typically treated unfairly. On the contrary, researchers found that girls have been consistently outperforming boys for the last decade, regardless of countries’ treatment of women.
“In a lot of these countries women are not allowed to do a lot of things, but what’s interesting is even in these countries girls are doing better in school,” Geary told The Huffington Post over the phone. The study notes the results extend to strict Muslim countries where there tends to be a “lack of opportunities for girls and women.”
PISA is a test that has been distributed around the world since 2000 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Researchers found that on the 2009 test, girls performed better than boys in reading, math and science in 70 percent of studied countries.
Geary noted that the top male performers tended do better in math on the exam than the top female test-takers, which feeds into a focus on the gender gap in STEM-related jobs. But at the same time, he said, there has been a lack of focus on the fact that girls seem to be performing better on the whole.
“All debate and fretting over STEM stuff, where boys go into STEM fields and do better at math, that is all at the upper end of achievement,” said Geary. “But there’s a whole lot of other kids in the world that are never going to go into STEM. When you look at all of those other 95 percent of the world’s kids, we see boys falling behind girls pretty much everywhere.”
Geary said he worried about the study’s implications for an increasingly complex labor market. Especially in non-developed countries, he said, there’s going to be “a lot of boys who are going to become young adults with few employable skills.”
“If you have countries with a large percentage of these types of men, crime rates go up,” he said, including violent crime.
Geary said he hopes the findings bring more attention to the issue of boys falling behind in school.
“The boys’ problems are overlooked,” said Geary. “It’s an important problem and a worldwide problem, and potentially has some serious implications … it just hasn’t been addressed and is not even on people’s radar to even figure out why this is the case.”
A question I’ve been getting a lot recently, both via email and in person, is this: How can I help my perfectionist child worry less, and understand that it’s normal to make mistakes?
“Perfectionism,” in its dictionary definition, is simply, “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable,” but the word carries a powerful double meaning in our achievement-obsessed culture. Parents shake their heads and sigh with frustration in conferences, describing their children as “perfectionists” with an unmistakable note of pride in their voice.
Aye, there’s the rub — we all know perfection is an unreasonable burden to place on our children, but we also reward them when they strive for that perfection. Whether it germinates in a child’s own mind, is sowed in the high expectations of parents, or grafted on from our larger societal expectations, perfectionism robs children of opportunities to become stronger, more adventurous thinkers.
I first met Victoria Pipas when she was in sixth grade. Tori, as we called her, showed up for school every day nearly incandescent with happiness. She loved school, adored her friends and was genuinely excited about learning. Over time, however, her fear and anxiety about not measuring up — to her own high standards, her parents’ hopes and her peers’ high praise — began to dull that enthusiasm. Her struggles with perfectionism culminated in a near-paralysis in my writing class, social anxiety, and an eating disorder that threatened her physical health and emotional stability in high school. I asked her to describe what it feels like to struggle with unreasonable and unrelenting high expectations:
My perfectionism feels like an assembly-line supervisor whose job it is to ensure that every part of me is flawless, without any sign of weakness. Writing my graduation speech in your class, for example, felt so big, so critical, that it became impossible. When I entered high school, my body felt like the most flawed part of me, so I felt the need to align it with the rest of my “perfect” image of myself. It’s weirdly satisfying to punish yourself with exercise or restricted food while at the same time becoming more “perfect”; it’s a twisted cycle. My perfectionism still gets in the way of forming friendships, too. I set out looking for the “perfect” friend and then act perfect around her so as to create what I think will be an ideal relationship.
I asked Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University and an author of “When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough,” to give parents and teachers advice on how to help kids like Victoria manage their perfectionism, and develop a healthier perspective on their worries.
In a phone interview, Dr. Antony described two forms of perfectionism. The first type, the kind that manifests as extreme attention to details, lists, order and arbitrary rules, is associated with obsessive compulsive personality disorder. The second type, Dr. Antony said, “is the tendency to set really high standards that you can’t possibly meet, and then judge your worth based on whether or not you meet those standards. The need to get all A’s, or the need to always make a good impression on others, for example. This type of perfectionism is more likely to be associated with anxiety and depression.” If the perfectionism causes significant distress or impairment in day-to-day functioning, Dr. Antony suggested professional help. At more moderate levels, parents and teachers can do a lot to help:
Expose worries. While it can be tempting to avoid upsetting kids, it’s important to get them talking about their worries, and to help them develop an emotional vocabulary about those concerning situations or activities. Once they open up about what makes them anxious, parents and teachers should repeatedly expose them to those triggers. This “exposure therapy” works particularly well for children with social anxiety, Dr. Antony said.
Change perspective. Dr. Antony suggests that parents or teachers help kids change the way they understand their perfectionistic thinking. Help kids understand that the dire consequences they envision are one possible outcome of many. Alternately, practice looking at worrisome situations from other people’s perspectives. Ask “What would Dad think if his pencil broke while he was working?” or “How might your friend Eli react if he got some of his homework problems wrong?”
Examine the evidence. Once kids are able to view their dire predictions as guesses or from the perspective of other people, help them gather evidence about the real-life consequences of those anxiety-fueled predictions. One way to do this is through engaging in what Dr. Antony calls “behavioral experiments.” He explained, “some people are convinced that if their towels aren’t straight, or their books aren’t in alphabetical order, or they pronounce something the wrong way, that something terrible will happen. So we’ll have them go out and try that, see what happens, to challenge that perfectionistic thinking.”
View failure more broadly. Try to help kids see mistakes “as an opportunity to improve performance, or even to learn that a particular activity is not for you,” Dr. Antony said. “Sure, there are some cases when you make a mistake and there are negative consequences, but there are also a lot of cases in which scary, worrisome predictions may not come true.”