The National

Perfectionist children

Of course, the below can be seen as a long-winded excuse from a non-perfectionist. 🙂


Failure is an important stopover on the road to success


Are children these days becoming perfectionists? Whether it’s playing water polo or learning Spanish, I watch children attempt an activity, quickly calibrate if they will be good at it and then decide whether to continue with it. “I am not good at it,” is an often-given reason for not pursuing a skill, talent or musical instrument.
I read the book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, with dismay and understanding. In it, the authors argue that a combination of self-doubt and a desire for perfectionism often cripple women from achieving their full potential. Perhaps it is nostalgic idealism but the girls of my generation were not this way. We took greater risks with our choices, mostly because the downside was so low. Societies and cultures didn’t focus on “success” so much.
Certainly, we didn’t have as many opportunities or as much attention from the adults in our lives. My parents were around but not necessarily engaged in my life when I grew up. My father was a busy professor and my mother was engaged in the business of life. There was always a stream of relatives who had to be taken care of, visiting grandparents and erratic gas connections that needed to be sorted out.
I remember my parents nagging my brother and me to study or finish our homework, but they certainly weren’t clued-in to the minutiae of my life. We had long summer holidays in which we were pretty much left to our own devices. We were forced to amuse ourselves by catching grasshoppers were playing endless games of Monopoly. It was a boring life when compared to the rich variety of activities and pursuits that my children enjoy but it was also one in which the stakes were low. My parents’ sense of worth wasn’t tied to our achievements as children.
I’ve recently begun to question the level of involvement that I have had in my children’s lives. Would I serve them better by ignoring them or at least detaching myself somewhat from their goals?
Every parent wants to raise children with a few basic characteristics: a strong work ethic, a desire for improvement, the ability to enjoy what life gives you, the resilience to combat and rise from hardships, compassion, altruism, some amount of self-awareness, humility and the courage to pursue a dream. All of this amounts to that nebulous quality that we call self-worth. All parents want to raise children with a strong sense of self-worth. The only problem is that it is tricky to engineer this. Self-worth, like many things in life, has to be gained, not given.
I have tried waterskiing three times in my life. The first time was in Michigan, where a friend who lived on the river a bunch of us summer campers out on his boat and taught us waterskiing. I was abysmal at it. I couldn’t even stand up. The water rushed towards my face as the boat sped up. Breathless and gurgling with frustration, I would try to yank myself up on the skis and fail within three seconds. I would tumble into the water.
My humiliation was made worse by the fact that all my friends seem to pick up this skill for standing up on a moving waterski within a couple of tries. The second time I tried it was in Goa. This time I took a class. The same thing happened. My instructors would yell from the speeding boat while I tried to balance on my haunches and hold the rope tightly. Again, within a couple of seconds, I would let go of the rope and sink into the water.
Recently, on a trip to Sri Lanka, I tried waterskiing again. This time, I was able to stand up. I cannot begin to tell you how joyous it made me feel; and how much it added to my sense of achievement. Best of all, I earned it.
The trick for any parent is to help their child find such experiences – where they fail at first and then, after a struggle, succeed. That, more than anything, leads to self-worth.


  1. Shoba this is exactly something I have been thinking about for a long time, too. I wonder what Priti thinks about it.

    Even I grew up in a similar environment, where adults would nag me for homework/studies but did not have a definite concept of learning or development beyond that. My husband also grew up in a similar environment but when he learnt that he could solve problems etc, faster than the other kids, he went further with that and got into IIT etc, and the rest is history.

    I am myself however very dissatisfied with the idea that my own choices had to do with my somewhat traditional parents. OK they did their best, but why didn’t *I* make the most of my opportunities? Heck I studied journalism etc in NY but it was *me* who made that choice (without really enquiring if South Asian gals like me can enter journalism in NY after that education). My husband is supportive etc, maybe not like Priti’s husband, who in my opinion has really done a lot to uplift her and get her into a good career. I am inspired by that and I hope I can take a similar path to get into a good career for myself. Otherwise it would be a terrible waste of my life if at 50 I am sitting around and wasting time and contemplating my navel about philosophy and spirituality.

    As regarding involvement in childrens lives, I remember the spirited debate in the topic “Be the woman of your choice”, where Shoba you said, “this piece was an attempt to get my women-friends not to use the excuse of being mommies to stop working”. If so then women should first examine their own choices and, while they are still young, make different choices than stick to status quo. To remain in status quo is a cowardly waste IMHO and to rationalize is it just pure delusion.

    As for me I am going to get back to searching for an education course that will put me in the job market. Better I start this before I hit the “child” barriers.


  2. Thank you for this timely article. Today’s parents and children are bound by this ‘wired’ world. There is no more ‘childhood, daydreaming, and getting bored. All children have to use even summers wisely! I believe parents need more learning to be accepting of their children, When we respect and love children for who they are, they will earn to respect themselves.


  3. very true, the education system is partly at fault here (apart from television and obnoxious parents). they seem to treat education as a competition. They seem more focused on teaching children “what to think” rather than “how to think”.


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