Parents should encourage their kids to strive for all As in the classroom, right? Not according to resilience expert Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe. In today’s world, 3 out of 10 children can be classified as “maladaptive perfectionists,” which means they set unattainable goals and minimize their accomplishments. In short, they believe they are never good enough. This can lead to poor mental health, issues with sleep, exhaustion and overwhelm. As a result, parents might need to help their kids redefine student success.
In a recent interview with MetroFamily, Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe shares why parents should encourage children to be B+ students and how to create healthy habits around school-life balance.
What does it look like for us as parents to teach our kids to strive for B+?
One of the things I came upon pretty early in my parenting role is this disconnect: in my heart, I wanted to set my child up for optimal success — to be well equipped, top of their class and have all the skills and talents they needed to be successful — but as a resiliency scholar, I appreciated the power of failure, understanding those smaller setbacks actually equip them better for the real world.
One of the things I explored was where do we start to hit high levels of life satisfaction? I was curious about who are the most well-rounded, grounded, positive members of society. One of the consistent findings I kept coming upon is that these are all B+ students in high school, trades, college and university. I thought this was so interesting because if my goal for my children is that they are grounded and well-rounded, I recognize that being at the top of your class, that A+ perfectionism, isn’t necessarily the only path to get there.
It’s hard to send your children to school and say, “Try, but don’t try too hard.” So we start to think instead about well-roundedness and having multiple components of our identity. We’re competent in school, put in the effort and complete tasks — and we also make time for our friends and extracurriculars, recognizing that we can learn a lot of things outside of the classroom. Well-roundedness is what we are looking for.
Of course, when you’re looking at colleges and universities, your grades do matter. This is a real-world implication, but what’s really important is to recognize there are enough opportunities, schools and programs that I believe if it’s meant for you, you will find your way into that program. Sometimes people chase this one program that requires a particular GPA or score to get into, but it’s about having what we call cognitive nimbleness or “flexible thinking” to recognize there will be a place or opportunity somewhere without putting ourselves in the tight, constricted areas where there’s only one possible outcome.
What are the implications of perfectionism for our children and how can we reframe this tendency?
It can be triggering for us as parents when we navigate perfectionism and see those behaviors in our children because we know how much pressure there is in that, never feeling like you are enough or doing a good enough job — we don’t want to see that in our children.
If we always get things right, we don’t have the opportunity to learn about our skills and gifts — it’s sometimes through challenges where we learn about ourselves. We talk with our children about the idea of not wasting a mistake. We will unpack it, explore it and figure out how to show up differently next time.
The first conversation point with our children is reframing what success looks like. I tell my children and those I work with that success needs to be something we’re defining that is in our control. That means effort, preparation, concentration. Did I do everything to show up to give a “best effort?”
The other piece is anxiety around school. One of our children navigates anxiety around testing. They would know all the things but get into the situation [taking the test] and it would escape them. So one of our new goals for our daughter was whether she could have fun in the process by going into the test thinking of it as a celebration of what she knows and staying loose and relaxed.
She also knew that I would still love her whether she bombed or did well and that this test is just one snapshot in time; it wouldn’t make or break her future. It was so fascinating to watch as she held that sense of calm and joy — it alleviated the anxiety enough for her where she could remember what she wanted to share because she took the pressure off herself. When students feel better, they do better and learn better.
We have so much power as parents because how we talk to our children will become their inner dialogue and how they talk to themselves as they grow up. I don’t get it right all the time, but I am confident that the internal dialogue I see our teens beginning to hold is giving themselves some wiggle room and grace — they know their values, their character and, as they navigate high school and post-secondary, they carry less of that pressure.
How can we help our kids — and our families — form healthier habits around work (or school)- life balance?
I call it “life with work integration” — how do we get all of these parts moving in such a way that we have the spaciousness to get the work done and be well in the process?
We have to recognize that on any given day something will get missed. Our weekends and evenings are not long enough to repair all the work we put on ourselves in a traditional workweek. That doesn’t even factor in the invisible labor of being a parent, especially for women. The amount of mental focus to hold everyone’s lives together — to know everyone’s schedules — that takes a lot of energy, so we’re trying to do that and doing important work tasks, and something has to give.
First, we need clarity about our values. Determine what matters most to you.
Next, instead of knowing your boundaries, which I struggle with because it sounds so permanent, I reframe the next part as knowing your non-negotiables. We need flexibility here. For example, instead of saying I won’t check emails on weekends, my non-negotiable is I don’t check work-related things when I’m in the kitchen because that is the nucleus of my family. Even those small micro behaviors can take off some of that pressure.
For our children, because values are abstract and they are in the stage between concrete thinking and abstract thinking, we can talk about character traits. We can talk about the idea of being brave and giving ourselves permission not to get it right the first time. Character traits are not that I’m an A+ student or the top of my class — it’s that I’m kind, hard working, thoughtful, considerate.
We, and our kids, also have to know that in giving our best we need flexibility and it might look different every day. Today it might be 60 percent and tomorrow it might be 20 percent, and I need to be tender with myself to honor those ebbs and flows that are part of the human condition.
Editor’s note: Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe is a resilience expert, author, speaker, mom and multi-award-winning education and psychology instructor. She has more than 16 years of university teaching and research experience and is the author of Calm Within The Storm: A Pathway to Everyday Resiliency, in which she details research-informed, sustainable, achievable personal development practices to take on the challenges of life.
This is a condensed and edited version of a MetroFamily interview with Hanley-Dafoe. To hear the full interview, become a Modern Art of Parenting member for $19/month or $199/year with a 30-day money-back guarantee. Enjoy access to presentations by internationally-renowned parenting experts like Hanley-Dafoe, plus additional perks. Learn more at www.modernartofparenting.com.