Helpfulness, intrusion, and perfectionism: the fine line of the Suzuki parent

I recently wrote a few thoughts about dealing with perfectionism in Suzuki students. Since my own Suzuki child has her own perfectionist tendencies, it left me wondering about how my own ways of helping may be growing, rather than reducing, that tendency. A recent paper1 on the development of maladaptive perfectionism sheds some light on how subtle differences in the way parents attempt to help their children can determine whether they become little perfectionists or more error-tolerant.

The types of perfectionism

We perfectionists come in lots of flavors.2 Psychologists commonly divide perfectionists into adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists. Adaptive perfectionism drives people toward high achievement; but when they fail to achieve their lofty goals, adaptive perfectionists don’t suffer undue anxiety and loss of self-esteem. In contrast, maladaptive perfectionists set themselves up for failure by trying to achieve unattainable goals and when they inevitably fail to meet them, become anxious, depressed, and suffer degraded self-esteem. In other words, while both types of perfectionists try to achieve some version of perfect, the maladaptive perfectionist ends up suffering the most because they have their entire emotional health riding on their unreasonable demands on themselves.

Ideally, we’d like our children to create reasonable goals for themselves, those that stretch their abilities in constructive ways while remaining free of anxiety and low self-esteem if they fail to meet them. Since Suzuki parents are on the front-lines of personality development with their children every day, might there be certain parental behaviours that shape these tendencies? The study from Dr. Hong and colleagues in the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore sheds some light into the subject.

Helping without hurting

The study followed the development of 302 children recruited in 10 primary schools in Singapore. Investigators observed the interactions between parents and children over a 5 year span and measured the development of perfectionistic traits using standard measures.

At the initial evaluation children were asked to play a board game in which the goal was to win. The investigators classified parental behaviours during the game into intrusive and non-intrusive actions. An example of an intrusive action is one in which the parent sought to correct an errant move by the child.

Over the course of the next 5 years of the study, children whose parents exhibited more intrusive behaviours, developed more characteristics of maladaptive perfectionism, and endorsed more symptoms of anxiety and depression. Notably, many of the parents’ actions were quite innocent and well-meaning.

The study sheds light on one of the reasons why musicians are so prone to perfectionism of the worst kind. Practice, after all, when done well is a deliberate attempt to develop more consistency and drive away mistakes. And the Suzuki parent’s role in practice is to help the child develop methodical habits, and serve as a surrogate for the teacher, making sure the teacher’s is present in absentia in the practice. But this study, and even perhaps our own intuition, tells us that there is a subtlety in how we as parents handle mistakes. In this sensitive period, it seems, we have to avoid confronting errors head on and allowing the child some latitude in finding her own mistakes and correcting them. This process goes hand-in-hand with the child’s need to take progressive ownership of the music. Some ways of helping that are less intrusive:

1. Fix errors indirectly

For my part, I need to become more skilled at fixing my daughter’s errors indirectly. Instead of “That D♯ wasn’t low enough.”, I should say: “What did you think of that last D♯?”

2. Praise effort and progress that still falls short of the goal.

Verbally supporting genuine progress (and effort!) that still falls short of the goal can also help diffuse some intrusiveness. Instead of “That’s still not quite right.”, a less intrusive/confrontational approach would be “It’s getting better; should you do it again?”

3. Let go of control.

As I read this study, I felt that there was an unmentioned subtext about the parents who were the most intrusive. Almost certainly, they were perfectionists themselves who couldn’t bear to see their children make an error as they went about their work. Some authors have described a form of perfectionism in which the sufferer demands for perfection are made on others rather than himself. I wondered if some of the parents in this study might have fit this description.

Sometimes I have an impulse to fix the way my daughter, now 8 years old, marks up her music. She writes in reminders about points that her teacher has made. Sometimes she writes them in a somewhat haphazard way and I have to suppress my urge to fix it and make it neater. I have to remind myself that when she marks up her score it means that she cares about the outcome and it’s an early sign of ownership. Why would I want to intrude on that just to make it neater?

My true confession this week is that this is very hard for me. I’m intrusive. But I’m learning. May we all be a little less intrusive and a little more helpful. Peace.

  1. Ryan Y. Hong, Stephanie S. M. Lee, Ren-Ying Chng, Yuqi Zhou, Fen-Fang Tsai, Seok-Hui Tan. Developmental Trajectories of Maladaptive Perfectionism in Middle Childhood. Journal of Personality, 2016; DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12249 [return]
  2. Others, notably Pavel Somov divides perfectionists into different categories. In his synthesis, perfectionists can be categorized as: 1) Neurotic perfectionists, 2) Narcissistic perfectionists, 3) Principled (Puritanical) perfectionists, and 4) Hyper-attentive (compensatory) perfectionists. [return]
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Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.