by Alan K. Duncan
Why is perfectionism detrimental to musicians?
Musical performance is an inherently subjective and interpretive act. Certain facts about stylistic interpretation of the composer’s intent are simply not known. On that level, perfection is unattainable simply because no perfect standard exists. But most young musicians in their early years are more concerned about the technical aspects of performance they develop in the practice room. There, practice is at first an exercise in learning the notes, then later an exercise in achieving a high level of consistency. Most perfectionism strikes here. As pieces grow longer and more complex, errors are statistically more likely.
How do I know if I might have a perfectionist for a child?
Perfectionists aren’t too hard to recognize. Child counselor and teacher Leah Davies, who has written about perfectionism in children, outlined some of the common features of perfectionists:
-They are usually self-conscious and easily embarrassed.
-They are very sensitive to criticism and react negatively to feedback.
-They may tend to procrastinate, dawdle or avoid doing tasks.
-They often have low self confidence and may be socially inhibited.
And of course they set high standards for themselves and are sometimes critical of others who don’t meet them. For many kids, the line between a genuine quest for excellence and perfectionism is blurry.
How can parents avoid teaching their children perfectionist traits?
Some of the elements of perfectionism are genetically-inherited. A child’s tendency toward positive or negative emotions and their anxiety levels are inherited to a great extent from her parents. Sorry kids, you can’t choose them…
But many of a child’s personality characteristics are learned. Even those that are innate can be modulated up or down by the parent’s interactions with their children. Some ways of interacting with children that can reduce perfectionist tendencies:
- Avoid modeling perfectionism.
Since children often learn that perfect is the only acceptable standard from parents who demand the same from themselves, we can be better role model by replacing the standard of “perfect” with “perfectly acceptable”. The standard we should be interested in is the standard of working toward excellence. It isn’t a perfect outcome we should be interest in; rather, it’s the honest effort at achieving excellence. Did you work hard and give it your perfectly human effort? Then you did a perfectly acceptable job!
2. Make praise specific and low-key.
The risk of over-praising kids is that they begin to associate a specific action with a global state of being. For example, if the child plays a passage and the parent says, “Oh, you’re awesome!” Then the child connects playing with a trait that they must process. It’s better to say, “I really liked how you remembered the bowing pattern that time.” Low-key, specific, and process-oriented comments make for constructive praise.
3. Avoid comparisons with other children.
By comparing rates of progress, kids sense that parental affection is tied to progress and they will do everything they can do to hold onto that. Since the rate of progress is related to so many variables outside of their control, this sets up an impossible standard to meet. Most parents are circumspect about making direct comparisons, but we all succumb to more subtle versions of it by talking about who is in which book and who’s on what piece.
4. Embrace and teach a growth mindset.
In some ways, a growth mindset is the ideal antidote to perfectionism. The growth mindset refers to an orientation toward competence by growth rather than the result of fixed, innate ability. By emphasizing this orientation and the idea that growth and mistakes go hand in hand, parents can diffuse some perfectionist tendencies.
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