One of the biggest mistakes that I see the best, most well-intentioned parents make is having too high expectations for themselves and for their children. The pandemic has made this worse in many cases, as you may feel like your kids are behind due to virtual schooling, canceled activities, and lost opportunities. However there’s real danger if you get caught up in the tendency to push harder for success!
Too high expectations are a recipe for frustration, anger, depression, and anxiety. It seems hopeless very quickly when our expectations are too high. And in truth, it shows a lack of understanding of what makes kids ultimately successful.
When I was 22, my younger brother died suddenly. Shortly after, because of seeking help to deal with my overwhelming grief, I was given life-saving information. I am a recovering perfectionist now; then I was a full-blown perfectionist who felt like dropping out of college because of my increasingly poor academic performance. Nothing less than an A was okay with me, yet my grades were starting to slip past Bs and into Cs (It didn’t help that like many perfectionists, I was trying to force myself into a career that was totally inappropriate… My Cs were in computer programming, which I’m very ill-suited for).
The tragedy of Louis’ death offered the gift that it cracked me open, and I became open to trying new things. I went to counseling to learn how to cope with my grief and find a path forward. Even before Lou died, I was wondering if I should drop out of university because I was growing convinced that I was a failure. So when my counselor proposed ideas like taking a study skills class, I agreed. My way was not working, and so I was willing to try something new.
The counselor also shared with me an article by Dr. David Burns’ called the Perfectionists’ Script for Self-Defeat. I was fascinated to learn that high achievers kept their sights low in order to keep their motivation high. When we know we can succeed, we are way more likely to find the energy to try something, right? After some time, I became convinced that it was worth lowering my aim and going for Bs, despite knowing that I could get As.
The results were nothing short of miraculous for me! The next term my GPA was a 3.93 out of 4. It never again slipped below a 3.7!! Yet I kept following my new script and I celebrated like crazy whenever I got a mere B, or a 3 out of 4!!
When I became a parent, I struggled. I found that the more that I pushed for perfection in my kids’ current behavior and in my own, the more out of control and miserable I felt and the more tension and fighting there was between us. After getting clinically depressed, I again found myself willing to try a different path. That’s when I realized that the same miracle might happen with my kids. So I relaxed, and reminded myself to go for Bs. (At some point in our GPS community we started to say that Cs get degrees, because I learned that if I was aiming for a B average, there would be moments of Cs or even Ds!) Parenting not only became much more enjoyable, but went that much better as I lowered my standards.
My kids are 22 and 24 now, and they benefitted in so many ways from me aiming for Bs. Perhaps most important is they’ve been able to avoid the debilitating mental health issues that cripple so many perfectionists. That’s despite going through their parents’ high conflict divorce where police were called, their childhood home was foreclosed on and bankruptcy was declared. They have not had an easy ride, and they have childhood issues to process.
Both kids have excelled academically, are happy to spend time with me as adults, and get accolades at work and from friends and family.
So bragging aside, aiming for Bs works! I’ll tell you a few more benefits of this method.
It helps you to avoid the trap of focusing on the moment to moment “successes” of your children. Failure is a critical part of ultimate learning and success. When we focus too narrowly and hover over our children, no one benefits. We need to keep the big picture in mind, or we end up raising anxious or depressed kids because they feel the pressure to always be perfect.
Kids are by nature immature beings. Their prefrontal cortex or thinking brain isn’t fully developed until they are 25. The full fruits of a lot of your labor won’t be visible for years! If you fret because they aren’t as mature as you want, but don’t keep the big picture in mind, you’ll end up giving them the message that they aren’t good enough, when it is just a case of them not being fully mature. Kids are very sensitive to parental approval or disapproval. Keep the big picture in mind, and remember that they are not yet fully mature.
Feeling like we can’t live up to our parent’s expectations is very frustrating. So one of the ways that aiming for Bs will help you decrease your child’s meltdowns, is you will be decreasing their frustration and stress. You will be creating an environment where mistakes are allowed, and lowering the pressure for all of you. That will help you to react more calmly too, which will help you to more quickly deescalate your child’s upset.
I highly recommend you work on trusting that your kids will grow up to be mature, responsible members of society. Yes, keep looking for teachable moments. But also cut your children and, perhaps more importantly, yourself some slack! Spend much more of your time envisioning what you want and trusting that you’ll get there. And cut back dramatically on the time you spend worrying about every little or even medium to big-sized mistake that you and your child make!
Aim to be a good parent, with a good child, not a great one, and everything will flow that much better.
What’s one thing that you can lower your standards on in order to increase you and/or your child’s results?