Race ya’ to the top!
Having just put my first child in public school two months ago, I am new to the effects of the “Race to the Top,” but I am learning quickly. At a recent Parents’ Night event, the cafeteria dripped with insecurity as parents aggressively queried the teachers about every advantage they hoped their children would have in the classroom. I’m astounded that even moms of kindergartners are in this race of perfectionism and fear.
If I’m being honest, I’ve got my doubts too; an anxious internal voice sometimes tells me that I’m not giving my kids enough. Can we be blamed for worrying? Parents work harder and longer than ever. We have a smaller extended family safety net and fewer places to turn when we struggle. Adding to the pressure, we’re under the headlights of social media, a warped looking glass through which we compare others’ perfectly crafted digital compilations to our own behind-the-scenes drudgery.
As a result of these cultural shifts, parenthood has taken on a competitive edge, and relationships can be adversarial instead of celebratory. Researcher Wendy Grolnick calls this contagious rivalry “Pressured Parents Phenomenon.” When we feel our children are at risk, our instinct drives us to protect them, resulting in greater competition. News outlets also fuel the fires of the mom wars; they see that keeping us fighting each other is an easy paycheck, so they perpetuate the cultural myth of the good mother.
Psychologist Dr. Thomas Greenspon points out that our children have the most to lose in our perfectionist, competitive race against failure. Researchers Dr. Eli J. Finkel and Dr. Grainne M. Fitzsimons agree, noting that when we “outsource self-regulation,” e.g. complete our children’s work for them instead of allowing them to achieve their own goals, we undermine their own accountability, creating less productivity and more unhappiness.
Giving our children the best we can and raising them to be lovely and bright are virtuous ambitions, but these goals are not synonymous with perfectionism. Perfectionism is not the pursuit of excellence; it is the pursuit of acceptance. It’s the debilitating anxiety that the actions you take are never good enough. It’s the fear you’ll never measure up to others’ standards. [See Dr. Greenspon’s perfectionist checklist.]
What can we do to strike a balance?
1) Acknowledge fear but don’t let it take control.
Of course I want to protect my kids from the sting of failure. But when I take a step back, I realize I help them more by allowing them to assert their autonomy than I ever could by completing their homework or tying their shoes.
2) Avoid criticism and advice.
Reading too much information on blogs and in books can make me feel worse about perceived parenting mistakes. Here’s an experiment you can try: avoid giving or soliciting advice for one whole week. It’s harder than it might sound. Bow out of the mom wars too; maybe it’s a cliché, but I find a simple reply of “To each her own,” “We’re free to be you and me,” or “There are a million ways to be” can stop a caustic criticizer in their tracks.
3) Gain confidence by not comparing yourself to others.
Constant online judgment has left us feeling self-conscious. We’re still trying to keep up with the Joneses, except now the Joneses are playing the game, too. Fight the urge to go online for comfort, which might seem to help at first but may cause you to feel more isolated.
4) Get help.
Replace advice with encouragement. Seek the companionship and intimacy of friends in your local circle. An objective third party can also help break the cycle. Marriage and family therapists are a great resource for families stuck in a perfectionist loop.
Repeat after me:
Practice makes better. Perfection is not the goal.
I am doing what I can, and it is enough.
My children are more than good enough for me, and I am good enough for them.
I see the perfection in all my flaws and all my genius.
I approve of who I am.