There are certain things we do as parents because we believe that we are acting in our kids’ best interests. Other times, we do things because we feel pressured to act in a certain way to ensure that we align with social, cultural, educational or even family-related expectations. But here’s the thing: Expecting more from our kids than they can achieve ultimately leads them to develop a self-critical attitude and what has been referred to as “maladaptive perfectionism.”
Science says that pushing our kids too far can increase their quest for perfection and, ultimately, the development of a self-critical attitude. In one study, researchers wanted to understand how maladaptive perfectionism developed in children. They assessed preschoolers over a five-year period to analyze how parenting influenced their perfectionist behavior. The children were first assessed when they were 7 years old, and then when they were 8, 9 and 11. The parent most familiar with the child also participated in the study.
In the first year of the study, the children were asked to solve puzzles within a given period of time, and the parents were told that they could help their child, if necessary. Parental behavior was then analyzed to determine the extent to which parents “took over” the game, regardless of whether the child needed their help or not. The researchers also analyzed reports from both the children and their parents.
The results showed that when parents were intrusive — meaning that they were ever present and overcontrolling — their kids were more self-critical of themselves, and they also exhibited higher levels of depression and anxiety. These children constantly felt like they were “not good enough” and therefore tended to blame themselves for their mistakes. Worse, the study found that as these children grew older, their perfectionist tendencies tended to increase.
The good news is that several parenting strategies can help prevent intrusive parenting. Here are four things we need to stop doing in order to prevent our kids from developing a self-critical attitude.
Do not push your child too far.
The study cited above found that the more children were pushed, the higher the risk of self-criticism and of psychological issues such as anxiety and depression. When setting expectations for children, we need to consider their level of development and what they are actually capable of doing. Having unrealistic expectations will only make your child more critical of themselves.
Avoiding pushing your child too far also means refusing to emphasize excellence. This could refer to academic excellence or excellence in extracurricular activities, such as sports, music or dance. When we emphasize excellence, children tend to find it harder to admit or even deal with mistakes and failures, which makes it more difficult to give them the support they need.
Do not overreact to your child’s mistakes.
When we expect too much from our kids, we tend to overreact to their mistakes. That doesn’t make things better, it makes them worse. When you focus on mistakes — and teach your child to focus on them as well — you encourage them to develop what pioneering Stanford University professor Carole Dweck refers to as a “fixed mindset.” People with a fixed mindset view mistakes as unchangeable.
Instead of focusing on mistakes, help your child develop a “growth mindset” by encouraging them to view mistakes as a normal learning process and by helping them to focus on what they can do in the future — or on the skills they need to acquire — to overcome setbacks.
Do not live your life through your child.
I would have loved to learn to play a musical instrument when I was younger. I didn’t. But that’s not a reason to force my kids to become expert musicians. Many of the choices we make for our children are based on our own past experiences, but that does not mean those choices are necessarily good for our kids.
Your child’s best interests are not necessarily the ones we believe them to be. Before pushing children in a given direction, we need to think about whether we are doing it for them or we are doing it to achieve our unfulfilled dreams.
Do not be an intrusive parent.
Abundant evidence suggests that children benefit when parents are involved in their lives, except in cases when they are overly present.
As researchers David Bredehoft, Ph.D., Jean Illsley Clarke, Ph.D., and Connie Dawson, Ph.D., have noted, doing too much or giving too much to children can “hinder them from performing their needed developmental tasks, and from learning necessary life lessons.” They say that parental intrusiveness and overindulgence prevent children from reaching their full potential.
Intrusive parenting can be defined by:
- Doing too much for your children. Intrusive parents control almost everything their children do and refuse to allow them to experience age-appropriate control.
- Overnurturing. This means giving your child too much attention and preventing them from developing the emotional skills they need to effectively deal with emotion-provoking situations.
“Help me to help myself” is one of Maria Montessori’s best-known quotes, and it refers to the need to give children the tools and resources that will allow them to perform tasks by themselves. For example, allowing kids to try out new activities by themselves and letting them know that they can ask for your help if necessary helps them develop important skills. It also helps them view themselves as capable of success.
To avoid intrusive parenting, it is important to let your child make age-appropriate decisions, and it is also important to avoid providing guidance for every decision they make. For example, you can let your kids decide when to do their homework, bathe or play their video games, or even the chores to perform, so long as you provide a structure within which to make these decisions (e.g., homework must be done by 6 p.m.; every member of the family must do at least one chore every day/week).
If we want to raise children who are less critical of themselves, we need to teach them that obstacles are normal, and, more importantly, we need to show them that we believe they have what it takes to overcome them.