Child Caring

Why doesn't her daughter try harder?

Dear Barbara,

Do you have any suggestions on how to encourage my daughter to try and not give up? She loves certain activities, but often seeks to opt out or sit down when she feels like she can't do it. I think she is afraid of not doing well or embarrassing herself in front of others, but I'm not sure how to help her.


From: MomtoCX2, Boston

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Dear MomtoCX2,

Since you don't mention your daughter's age, I can't tell where she might be developmentally but, in general, what you're describing sounds exactly what you suggest: that she's afraid of not doing as well as she wants and/or of embarrassing herself. In fact, children who tend to be perfectionists often are under-achievers.

A tendency toward perfectionism can start very early; some parents who tend to be a perfectionist themselves say they can spot it -- with horror -- even in a 2 year old.

Why horror? What's so awful about a child who pays attention to detail? About a child who has determination and stick-to-it-iveness and takes pride in her work? Aren't these qualities we'd all like our children to have?

Be careful what you wish for. We all want children who know what it means to work hard but we also want them to reach a point of satisfaction. At the extreme end of the perfection continuum is the obsessive-compulsive child who can't do that; that child can't function because nothing is ever as perfect as he wants it to be. Luckily, not many kids fall into that category. (The ones who do, typically benefit from professional help.)

So maybe you've noticed that I have been careful to write "tends" to be a perfectionist rather than flat-out calling folks perfectionists. That's because this is a behavior that is typically internally driven but can be externally modified.

My first bit of advice is to check with the teacher. Has she/he noticed this tendency? Has anything happened in the classroom that might have made your daughter reluctant to speak up? Have kids picked on her, even subtly? Is your daughter overly sensitive? BTW, if the teacher tells you something like, "Well, she's quiet, but that's the way she is," and you know that's not the way she is, don't let it drop. Tell her your theory -- that you think she would rather not try than only succeed half-way -- and see if you can work together to help her.

Introduce your daughter to the concept of "good enough" (which you can eventually short-cut to GE): "I know you wish you could do X. Do you think you can decide that X minus y is good enough?" The idea is to get her to recognize instances when she can compromise her standards. At the same time, meanwhile, channel the perfectionist tendencies into activities and behaviors where you see she is able to meet and maybe even exceed her expectations.

Watch what you say. We often inadvertently reinforce the tendency to perfectionism. Do you frequently say, "Not bad," instead of "Good!" I love this mother's description of her "aha" moment, when she realized that all she had to do was notice her child's efforts, not praise the results. Her solution was to say these simple words: "I love to watch you...."

What role model are you presenting? Make a point of making a mistake and muttering to yourself, but loudly enough for her to hear, "Darn, that's not the way I wanted that to turn out. Gotta regroup. How can I fix this?"

Of course, sometimes a child who doesn't try hard enough is giving up because they lack necessary skills or face an undiagnosed learning challenge. This can turn out to be a problem with what's called Executive Function. Click here to learn more about it.