September 19, 2019

Girls and Perfectionism

It was so easy raising a perfectionist daughter. She was always the child who wanted to please. To please parents, friends, sports coaches…. teachers. Perhaps teachers most of all. For school is the great locus of encouragement of girls’ tendencies towards perfectionism.

While we fret over our sons’ apparent lack of motivation for school, moms like me gloat (not so silently)  over our daughters’ academic achievements. Sure, that’s fun. It’s a status uptick for us. And it makes our lives easier. No nagging to do homework. Teachers love it too.

But at what cost to girls?

When my then 12-year-old daughter was doing homework at midnight, making assignments picture-perfect with colour-coded maps and headings, was that healthy? Or necessary? I think not.

From elementary school through university, girls are doing better at school than boys. A major study by researchers at UBC, University of Toronto and Dalhousie found that girls’ grades in general had shifted in the last 20 years from B to A, while boys’ grades in general had stayed at B. Girls were not doing better than boys on IQ tests, but the researchers found girls were getting consistently higher grades because they worked harder and had more self-discipline.

This is not as good news as it sounds – because of what it’s costing girls. They work too hard. They’re too conscientious. If a 90 is good, they believe they have to get the 96. Or else. We might ask, or else what?

But that’s not the interesting question. What matters is the cost to girls. When they work themselves into a tizzy (which they do) they are creating and reinforcing the notion that they’re not quite good enough if they don’t push themselves to the limit. This notion of “not good enough” is pernicious. Rather than the good grades building their confidence, the excessive work they put in detracts from their confidence: They come to believe that only through a nonstop grind will they be good enough.

That’s the problem. Plus which this girl, the over-worker, is also prone to imposter syndrome. The inner voice says: “What if they find out I’m not that smart? I’d better work harder so they never find out.” Imposter syndrome is a vicious circle: Work harder, hide that you’re not (in your own opinion) good enough, get praised for the results, work harder….

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our daughters knew they are good enough, just as they are, without having to perform like superhumans? We have an epidemic of teen girl anxiety, some of it surely based on their belief that without overwork they’ll not be good enough. Perfect is the enemy of good. Because there is no perfect. A girl who strives for (and gets) the 96, wishes it were 97. Like the proverbial parents who, when their child brings home a 98, say: “Where’s the other 2%?”

We’re not those parents. We shower our daughters with praise, we strew rose petals in their path for the high grades. Inside, to an over-working girl, it sounds like: “I’m not good enough unless I work my butt off.” That doesn’t raise confidence – it lowers it. Because of the “not good enough unless” voice inside.

It’s also a quality of life issue. The stress brought on by a constant push to be a super-student is negative. Do teenagers need that much stress? It robs them of part of their childhood.

What can we do instead? We can talk to our daughters about pulling back, We can tell them that good is good enough.

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