Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Black Swan: Not My Daughters! (and I’m No Tiger Mom)

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.

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2 comments on “Black Swan: Not My Daughters! (and I’m No Tiger Mom)

  1. Gem
    February 28, 2011

    My question is, how can we encourage a healthy drive for excellence, when a child has an unhealthy perfectionism? I have a daughter who is very vocally talented, is smart, witty, and has an awesome stage personality. But in everything — not just stage — she more often than not quits or doesn’t even try because she can’t perfectly the first time. I don’t want to be driving or pushing her, but if I can get her past that “I can’t do it” hump, when she can do it and very well, she blooms & enjoys herself. I’m just not very successful at getting her past that point without sounding (even to myself) like a pushy stage mom.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      February 28, 2011

      Oh Gem, I so relate to this question, not only for one of my daughters but for myself as well. Frankly, I really hate not being good at something, so I understand the desire to avoid things that challenge you. And, when you have a child who’s gifted and things usually come easy to, well, that’s a new and difficult experience for them.

      Here are some of the things that I recommend to parents who are struggling with a child who wants to quit or avoid challenges:

      1. Work very hard to make “challenge” a good word in your family. Doing new things together that are difficult but fun, and laughing while learning, is one of the best ways to model this skill for your child. Your goal is to help your child see things that are difficult as a challenge and opportunity for learning and growing.

      I have to say that my sixth grade daughter is my hero when it comes to this. I’ve worked hard to help her see challenges as good, and she totally gets it now, even as I may be struggling! She got the opportunity to participate in a cross country bike race having never done it AT ALL. Did she sign up? Yep. Was she nervous? Of course, but the girl went in there and had fun. She didn’t get first place or even second, but she’s kept it up because she enjoyed it. That’s what we’re striving to teach, that challenging yourself is fun. Offer lots of new opportunities for challenge in lots of different ways (new knowledge, skill, experience, etc.). When everyone is starting from the beginning together, it’s an opportunity for growth. Choose things UNRELATED to her vocal talents, too, to encourage this to generalize to all aspects of life.

      2. Don’t let them quit too easily. I have rules in my house about having to finish things that you started. So, when my middle daughter signed up for soccer and hated it, I made her finish the season. I told her that she didn’t have to do it again, but she needed to stick to her commitment. Sometimes when kids do that, they also get through the “I hate this” stage and start really enjoying it.

      3. Know that some personalities find failure and challenge more difficult. That’s not to say that they can’t learn to see challenge as a new opportunity, but it’s still difficult. Maybe that’s your daughter’s issue. Keep encouraging her and reminding her how much she enjoys it in the end. It may be that she really needs that little push from you to keep going, and she’s asking for it in her own way by protesting. Now, if my child was screaming and crying that they hated something and didn’t want to do it, that would make me back off. But, if it’s just a consistent, “This is hard, I’ll never get it,” she may just need you to keep encouraging her.

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