SO YOU WANT YOUR
CHILD TO Be The Best?
Words by Wendy Gregory-Bollen
One night when my daughter was in the sixth form at school and, quite frankly, struggling academically with the subjects she had chosen, I walked past her room and heard her crying.
On asking her what was wrong I received the reply, broken with sobs, “I’m not brilliant at anything Mum- I’m never going to get a good job or have a nice life.”
I was mystified as to how and why she would think that, but after further enquiry I found, to my horror and disgust that her head of sixth form, presumably in a misguided attempt to motivate the pupils to get better grades had told them, “If you don’t get good grades and don’t go to university, you’ll end up stacking shelves in Tesco!”
Apart from the issue of how insulting that is for people who do work in supermarkets (there’s no shame in working for a living), I was shocked that a professional adult would say something so utterly ridiculous, and cause such unnecessary distress to the young people in her charge.
After comforting and reassuring my daughter that it didn’t matter at all what grades she got as long as she did her best, and pointing out that the likes of Alan Sugar, Michelle Mone and Richard Branson didn’t distinguish themselves in any way at school, I started to think about this whole issue. As a psychologist and teacher, I am acutely aware of the ever increasing number of anxious, depressed young people there are in this country: some estimates put it at as many as one in four who suffer with a significant mental health condition before the age of eighteen.
“Children need to relax and play: that is how learning is consolidated in the brain”
Most parents, when asked, will say that they want the best for their children, but often this actually means that they want their children be ‘successful’, both academically and in the world of work. At a time when schools (sadly) are piling the pressure on children to achieve better and better standards in order to satisfy government demands, many well-intentioned parents are also pushing their children to achieve ever higher grades, to be the best in everything they do, not realising how damaging this can be. Similarly, I have come across primary aged children who attend tuition every weekday evening as well as on Saturday and Sunday, being expected to do eight hours extra work a week on top of their school homework. Others have to attend an organised activity after school almost every day, such as ballet, violin lessons, gymnastics or martial arts. Needless to say, such children end up utterly exhausted. Children need to relax and play: that is how learning is consolidated in the brain and also how they become creative, as well as how they learn to deal with social situations.
More and more children and young people appear in my therapy room feeling stressed, anxious and unhappy, in spite of being high achieving students, often in sports and music as well as academia. I have seen ten year olds vomit from fear on the way into the exam hall to take their 11+, parents becoming hysterical and quite literally screaming at each other outside, children being put off playing football or netball permanently because they didn’t make it onto the school team when they were nine. I have witnessed many a teenager full of promise who if, heaven forbid, ‘only’ got an A grade in a subject (in spite of getting nine other A*s), being berated by their parents with, “Why didn’t you get an A*?” Such parents are unwittingly setting their children up for a lifetime of feeling inadequate, no matter how outwardly successful they become.
“Much research links perfectionist traits to anxiety, depression, alcoholism and substance abuse.”
Much research links perfectionist traits to anxiety, depression, alcoholism and substance abuse. Whilst the causal links aren’t fully established, it is reasonable to guess that having remorselessly exacting standards would lead one to become anxious: nothing you do is ever adequate. Similarly, it is depressing to never feel good enough, no matter how outwardly successful you are. In a bid to escape from the constant pressure to be flawless, many perfectionists resort to the oblivion which is so easy to find by using alcohol or drugs. Whether you recognise a perfectionist trait in yourself or not, it is worth considering whether you impose unrelenting standards on your children.
Going back to my daughter’s situation, I was curious about what it was that made her think she needed to be brilliant. How many of us are truly brilliant at anything? In life, learning to cope with failure and disappointment is possibly even more important than achieving success. Far healthier, then, to accept just being good enough; being competent at a number of things and quite good at one or two is fine. Enjoying life and getting satisfaction and fulfilment from what we do is surely a more realistic aim. In the words of Baroness Helena Kennedy, who has had a stellar career, “Make time for your friends and family. It isn’t work that will bring you happiness, but the quality of the relationships in your life.” Indeed!
Wendy Gregory is a counselling psychologist and specializes in parenting issues as well as offering therapy to families, children and young people.
Contact Wendy at email@example.com