Recently in The Washington Post, there was an article on how perfectionism is destroying our young adults’ mental health. Parents are pushing their children to build the perfect college resume. It is one thing to be a conscientious high-achiever but it is another to be an unhealthy perfectionist.
The article goes on to say that healthy achievers enjoy striving for excellence and they handle setbacks well. However, perfectionists are motivated by a fear of failure and therefore reach for high goals in an effort to prove their worth and their value to others.
Growing research finds that rates of perfectionism in young people is soaring. They feel a great deal of pressure to excel at multiple academic and extracurricular pursuits. They see themselves as catastrophically flawed if they don’t meet the highest standards of success.
The source of all this pressure begins with the parents, who are beginning to recognize that they are to blame for putting excessive pressure on kids to succeed. Yet they are having a difficult time letting go of their high expectations.
Sociologist Anthony Campolo shares how this often plays out with parents in the raising of their children:
We will never know how many children have had their lives made miserable by being pushed to achievements which makes their parents look good. Children who are driven to psychological exhaustion for academic achievement often know that their labor is primarily to enhance the status of their parents. Behind the claims that the parents expect the children to do well, because success in school will increase their options, is the ugly reality that the achievements of the children visibly demonstrate the superiority of the parents.
I believe the root problem is what the Bible calls “idolatry.” It is when we allow something God has intended for good, and granted it a power in our lives it was never meant to have. I am learning that one of the most powerful idols in the life of any parent is their children’s accomplishments. We deify our children’s success, and are generally not aware of it. In the process it makes for a very disappointing life, particularly if our children don’t meet or exceed our expectations. But look what it does to our kids.
Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, shares the story of a mother named Anna.
Counselors would tell her she has to stop pushing her children into activities and projects they have no aptitude for. She has to stop punishing them emotionally for bad grades. She would have to give them the freedom to fail. That’s all true, but there is an underlying issue that has to be confronted. She must be able to say in her heart, “My desire for completely successful and happy children is selfish. It’s all about my need to feel worthwhile and valuable. If I really knew God’s love – then I could accept less-than-perfect kids and wouldn’t be crushing them. If God’s love meant more to me than my children, I could love my children less selfishly and more truly.”
Her overcontrol of her children was not only an unwillingness to let God be God in her own life, but also in their lives. Anna could not imagine that God might have a plan for her children’s lives wiser than her own.
She had mapped out a perfect life, without failures or disappointments. But that is more of a flawed life-plan than the bumpy ride God inevitably maps out for us.
The success and love of Anna’s children has been more important to her self-image than the glory and love of God. Though she believes in God with her mind, her heart’s deepest satisfaction comes from hearing a child saying, “Oh, Mother, I owe everything to you!” Tragically, she may never hear the words that she longs for most, because her inordinate need for their approval is pushing away the ones she loves most. She must be willing to put God first, to trust God with her children by letting them fail, and to find her peace in his love and will.
I had a man tell me one of the most liberating things that ever happened to him was recognizing he had allowed his children’s success to be a powerful idol in his life. When their lives did not turn out the way he wanted them to, it caused great anguish. Once he relinquished this idol, and let his children live their lives, he experienced a real sense of freedom and peace.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.