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Can Montessori Prevent Perfectionism?

I recently completed a Doula training seminar, where I met a group of amazing women. There was an amazing sense of camaraderie and support. This is not an easy phenomenon to uncover I have only experienced such a group bond once previously, and that was when I went through my training to become a Montessori guide. As I reflected on this simple fact, that I have only experienced this twice in my almost 40 years here on Earth, I naturally began to dissect this to uncover the “why”.

Fortunately, it wasn’t that difficult to uncover!

Both times I was sharing a space with a group of people who set aside their egos, let go of perfectionism, and leaned into one another for support and guidance. No one was above the other, we were all in it together. Being open to questions and letting go of fear, breaking down our barriers to share our perspectives in the interest of the whole group. And at the center of all this support and openness, the goal was to learn to help others, to be in the service of others.

Over the years, I have struggled with perfectionism, and this was something I spoke freely about in our Doula training group. I took a deep breath and led by the gut instinct that I was not the only one with that struggle, I opened up about how my perfectionism prevents me from making deeper connections with others. The constant struggle to try to be nice and attractive for everyone, but myself.

That risk to open myself up paid off, because I was right! I was not the only one struggling with this perfectionism and because I took a moment to dig deep and put myself out there, I was introduced to a book by Brene Brown that I had never heard of. In fact, I had never heard of Brene Brown. Now that I am reading her book The Gifts of Imperfection, I am pretty surprised I had never strumbled upon it before! This book came to me at the right time when I had already begun my work to let go of who I thought I should be and focus on who I am, who my authentic self is.

So what does this have to do with preventing perfectionism in our children?

I am so glad you asked!

As I was reading the other morning, I came across this passage:

“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.

Please. Perform. Perfect.

This connected with me in a way I didn’t expect. Although this book is written for adults on their journey to release that sense of what they should be, hidden inside is the recipe of what NOT to do to our children.

This struck a chord with me because this is exactly what we are taught in our Montessori training in regards to how to and how not to react to the children’s efforts. I also think this is the hardest aspect for adults to put into action with children, especially young children. Maria Montessori states in one of her books:

“The adult ought never to mould the child after himself, but should leave him alone and work always from the deepest comprehension of the child himself” The Child in the Family, pg. 18

She was already urging adults to allow children to follow their own instincts and allow children the freedom to learn from their mistakes, follow their interests, and trust in themselves.

I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that there are many others out there that think this same thing: “If only I had more encouragement when I was younger, I would doubt myself so much”. And so we start our effort of “breaking the cycle” with our own children by encouraging them every step they take, literally! Every time a child hits a milestone, such as walking, we congratulate them and celebrate their efforts, that to them, took no more effort than breathing. When we celebrate these occurrences with our children, telling them “good job!” or “you’re amazing!” we as adults are imposing our views onto them.

The beauty of the Montessori materials themselves is that they are self-correcting. This means that rather than needing an adult to tell the child they have not done the activity correctly, it is the result of the activity that presents the error to the attention of the child. For example, one of the very first activities a child is presented in the Montessori classroom when they begin is the pouring activity. The child doesn’t need the adult to tell them “you spilled!” The child is instead allowed the freedom and respect to make this discovery themselves through the mistakes they will make. Maybe they spill on themselves, maybe they spill on the floor and will need to clean it up. This is how they work on their own personal desire of how skilled they wish to become at pouring. They see the spill, they notice adults don’t spill and so they continue working at it until they no longer spill. The spill doesn’t discourage them and cause them to never try again. In fact, it does the opposite.

When they finally reach the point in which they work with pouring and do not spill, they have succeeded to the point they wanted to. No adult had to tell them to do it again until they don’t spill. No adult needs to point out to them, “I am so proud of you, you didn’t spill!” They know! They have been working hard at it and they accomplished what they set out to do!

So now they’re done with pouring and they never need to pour again. Wrong!

Now they continue to work with pouring because they have self-pride in their work and their efforts! They will continue to go back to the pouring work, even when they are in their last year in the Montessori environment because they enjoy being capable of doing something and pleased with the ease with which they can do it because it began as such a challenge. Additionally, there will continue to be new uses for their pouring skill, when they do handwashing, when they do flower arranging, when they water the plants, or when they assist in serving snacks. The adult never needs to reward the child for their own accomplishments or encourage them to keep trying, they just do it, and they love to do it!

And this is where the difficulty comes in for the adults. If I don’t congratulate them, how will they know I am proud of them? If I don’t encourage them to keep trying, will they still want to do it again? If I don’t tell them good job, will they recognize how great they are? If I don’t ill they feel like I don’t support them? And so we project our own perfectionism and self-doubt onto the child by giving them encouragement we feel we need. We fall into the “great job!” and “I am so proud of you!” trap.

When we start the cycle of rewarding our children with compliments for what they are doing or how they are behaving, it begins the cycle of doing things to please the adults, which then becomes the cycle of doing things to please our peers, and before we know it, we are stuck in a place of fear. Fear of disappointing others, that others won’t like us, or fear that we will never be “good enough”. The child, and eventually the adult they will grow into, may become dependent on praise and approval in order to feel worthy.

I think instead, all the positive emotions we wish to convey to our children can be communicated through sharing in their joys, rather than pointing them out for them. For example, a child that is joyful because they just zipped their coat all by themselves: we can reflect back that joy and show them how we see them feeling: “Wow! You look like you are so happy with yourself for zipping your coat!” This shares in their joy with your genuine connection, but keeps the focus on how they are feeling about themselves. This is the ultimate goal of self-confidence, to feel pleased with oneself without external reinforcement.

I also think we can show our support for our children more in the times of unease, rather than in the times of joy. When a child is experiencing joy, especially when it comes to an accomplishment, they are experiencing self-love. However, when a child is struggling and can’t accomplish something they want, that is when they need the reassuring that there is still love to be experienced. Our support at this moment is better served for the child’s long-term personality development. Being there for them in these moments sends them the message “I am loved even when I struggle”. The empathy that says “I am here for you even though this is hard” and “I will stay by your side while you struggle through this” can go a long way to build up self-esteem, self-worth, and most importantly, being loved by the adults that surround them.

The greatest thing about being there for our children when they struggle? This is who they become, the person that empathizes with others, who sits next to others and says “I know this is hard, but I am here for you and I love you for who you are, not for your accomplishments”

Can you imagine where you would be if you had that thought in your mind when you didn’t get to cleaning the house this week or you have an opposing view than that of a loved one? This idea of being supported because you are you and you matter vs being liked because you do everything perfectly but you are exhausted and you are tired of being everything to everyone.

This is what I wish to pass on to all the children and families I work with: you are enough because you are you. You are more than just your accomplishments. We can grow stronger together through our openness and support of one another rather than needing to be on this lonely island of perfectionism. Through acknowledging our imperfections, we create an environment that is conducive to support and to be the role model our child needs. Through accepting ourselves as we are, imperfections and all, we are demonstrating to our children that it is okay to be imperfect and that it is how they feel about themselves that is important. Furthermore, accepting our own imperfections as just that, our own. Our imperfections are not our child’s imperfections. In order to truly break the cycle of perfectionism, which is outward, we must embrace our children for who they are, without correcting, and allow them to feel their own pride and joy, without making it about ourselves.

What is your experience with perfectionism? Are you struggling with it? How do you support your child with empathy? Did you have a strong reaction after reading this? Share in the comments!

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