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Reality Check: The Problem With Perfection

Q. Our 5-year old daughter is a perfectionist. We don't want her to beat herself upĀ -- should we try to moderate her behavior? Can we?

You can and should try. As your daughter grows, in school especially, her tendency can become an obstacle. Rather than spur her on to success, perfectionism can keep her from taking risks and even ruin victories.

"There's a major difference between the pursuit of excellence and perfectionism," says Thomas Greenspon, Ph.D., author of Freeing Our Families From Perfectionism. "Trying to be perfect is not about high standards. It's about feeling that unless something is without fault, it's worthless. It's really a fear of failure."

Here are three ways to help your child lighten up on herself:

1. Convey to her that you accept the way she is, period. If she crumples up a drawing in a fit because she made an error, let her go on to a new picture. Then smooth out the old one and tell her what you liked about it.

2. Try to talk to her about it. "Say, 'I like that you take your work seriously, but do you worry about making a mistake? Do you think about that?'" suggests Greenspon.

3. Look at how your behavior might play a role in her perfectionism. Broadcast your own goofs: "Oops, I got off the highway at the wrong exit. But it's okay. We'll just turn around." Remind your daughter that mistakes help us learn, that the only way to avoid them is to take no risks, and that without risks a person can't grow.

Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING magazine and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.