Natalie Portman won the Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal in The Black Swan of a ballerina pursuing perfection to an unhealthy end. In this article by Dr. Michelle Borba, she talks about what she calls “Little Black Swan Syndrome.” Dr. Borba claims that the increasing pressures on young girls and women to achieve perfection is leading to high levels of mental health issues and behavioral problems. In my study of perfectionism, I’ve found that research supports that perfectionism can be a healthy motivator for achievement, but often times leads to depression. In fact, in a study that I conducted with my colleague, Dr. Mary Christopher, we found that highly able and gifted children and early adolescents who felt that their parents forced perfectionism on them tended to be more depressed.
But how do we know, as parents, when we’re forcing perfectionism on our child versus encouraging them to do their best? I would say that, from a mental health perspective, it’s when your child feels that they are trying to attain perfection in order to please you rather than themselves. There are some incredibly talented and highly driven kids out there, and they may be seeking high levels of achievement for themselves. In fact, there is a scale that measures whether perfectionism is driven by a desire to achieve an internal goal or reach goals that the child feels is being pushed by others. You could get someone to help you access that scale (The Child and Adolescent Perfectionism Scale). Or, pay attention to things like this:
1. Are you more excited about your child’s achievement then they are?
2. Who’s driving the pursuit of a certain goal, you or your child? If you’re the one with all the enthusiasm and your child is lagging, making excuses, even crying about pursuing a goal, it may be time to take a step back and ask yourself if this is for them or for you.
3. Remember that everybody has off days. I remember when I was pursuing my PhD, there were days when I wanted to quit, when I felt like I would never get there. But, then I’d bounce back. Your child is going to have the same kinds of moments. But when the “I hate this” moments are heavily out-weighing the “I love this” moments, it may be time to talk with your child about what they want.
So, what do we do? Many of us have ambitions for our children, and want them to have opportunities that we didn’t. We long to see their gifts recognized. These are all good things.
But here’s what I’d like you to remember, you are raising human beings, first and foremost. I do not agree with the Tiger Mother approach. My first goal for my children is for them to grow up to be people:
1. Who make the world a better place
2. Who know how to build and maintain authentic relationships
3. Who can assert themselves effectively to achieve their goals
If they become world-class dancers, pianists, soccer players, mathematicians, or whatever else, then well done. But if they achieve high acclaim for their accomplishments but don’t believe in themselves or know how to have authentic relationships, then I will feel as if I have failed. Those are the things that get my claws out. I’ll push them to struggle with friendships instead of giving up while also understanding that some relationships aren’t healthy, to stand up for themselves, to speak up when they need to do so. I want them to be world changers, not black swans.