Tell Me About It: Let children know it's OK to be flawed

Posted: February 04, 2013

Adapted from an online discussion.

Question: Last fall you had a column about a high school perfectionist who could have been me. I'm now in my 30s and long since healed thanks to great friends, an amazing therapist, and a lot of time. But I'm afraid my own daughter will go through what I went through. I can remember feeling guilty about letting people down when I was a toddler (although high school is where the pressure compounded into an eating disorder).

As a parent, how do you see that and offer help . . . preferably long before it reaches such a crisis point? How do I make sure my kids know they are great even when they aren't perfect?

Answer: A big part of it is to praise them for things they control, like hard work, versus their gifts (looks, talent, intellect). The opening chapter of NurtureShock (Bronson/Merryman) covers this nicely. Kids also need age-appropriate responsibilities so they derive self-worth through contributing, as opposed to winning or losing.

And since perfectionist tendencies are so deeply rooted in feelings and the validity thereof, also try How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (Faber/Mazlish).

Sorry to kick you to longer discourses on the topic, but raising kids to accept their flaws and feel comfortable sharing uncomfortable truths is not a column-size answer. It's a style of communication oriented toward validating feelings without compromising toughness.

Give yourself some credit, too. You know what the pressure to be perfect feels like, and probably also understand what in your childhood environment caused it. That's a blueprint for what to avoid.


E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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