Do children evolve into perfectionists? Or are they born that way? The short answer is “yes”. To both.

But things are never so simple. So here’s the longer answer:

There are two major varieties of perfectionism at play at any given moment.

The first variety is inborn and is a byproduct of overexcitability. Some people are just born to strive for excellence, and when well-channelled, this type of perfectionism can be put to great use. 

Others develop their perfectionist tendencies via unhelpful feedback and consequences for making mistakes. How many of us have heard the phrase “You’re just being lazy” when we really didn’t understand the task at hand? Or gotten a low grade on an assignment we worked our rear-end off for? This second variety is externally-provoked perfectionism, perfectionism as a fear of failure.

And when both occur simultaneously, as they often do in gifted and twice-exceptional children, you better watch out. Life is about to get beyond intense.

People write me all the time about how to better support their perfectionist children and students. I think a part of the answer lies in understanding the different types of motivation and helping children find their intrinsic motivation.

Unhealthy perfectionism can evolve when a child is kept from connecting with their internally-driven motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is our drive to achieve because the achievement seems fun, interesting, and otherwise enriching.

Contrast that against external motivation, motivation that is driven by external gratification such as grades or other rewards.

There’s an emotional darkside when children begin to expect external gratification. When a child begins to rely on the approval of others before they can feel satisfied with their work, they may also begin to fear punishment for not achieving the way their teachers and families want them to achieve. Or they might be afraid that their friends will think they’re dumb for making a mistake.

External motivation often reinforces a fear of failure.

What keeps us from allowing children to connect with their intrinsic motivation? More often than not, it’s fear and our own unhealthy perfectionism! We fear that our children will fall behind others or won’t get into a good college, that these missed opportunities will lead them down a path of despair that leads to living in a van down by the river.

I get this. I get why it’s scary. We want assurances that our children have the tools they’ll need to live the amazing life we want for them. But while rewards for jobs well done may help us feel better in the short-term, in the long term they can have disastrous effects.

Why do we rely on external motivation, even if we know better?

Because it gets us fast results, but those results are not lasting.

I tend to think of it like this:

External motivation is candy; it’s easy to find at the convenience store and even easier to eat. Internal motivation is protein and vegetables; you have to walk all the way to the farmer’s market to get it and then you still have to cook it! (We all know what happens when we eat too much candy).

Here are a few ways you might tell if your child is struggling with externally-motivated perfectionism:

  • If your child isn’t immediately good at something, he gives up.
  • He’ll never try in the first place.
  • He constantly self-corrects without progressing. For example, he erases handwriting over and over to the point of tearing a hole in his paper with his eraser.

How can we help a child connect with their intrinsic motivation?

One way is to give the child control over aspects of their life they are competent enough to handle. This is one aspect of my Montessori training that I’m 100% aligned with. In the Montessori tradition we give children responsibilities, like tidying up, early on. Work like this is part of the daily classroom life. It’s an aspect of the curriculum. We also give children choice when it comes to picking other learning tasks in math, language arts, and other subjects.

A skillful teacher will guide the choice just enough to allow the child to experience feeling competent and independent.

Here’s a lovely example of one way a friend of mine gave her child a moment to learn about his intrinsic motivation. One morning, my friend and her kid were getting ready to go to the local park. Her boy told her he wanted greater independence. She told him to come up with his own list of guiding principles for their trip to the park. He came up with with two categories: how we interact with the space and how we interact with others. Isn’t that great? Because he came up with the guidelines, he got to feel what it’s like to be truly responsible for himself.

Talk about motivation with children! Explain the different types of motivation and why it’s important. Ask them where they think they need support.

And don’t for a minute think that I haven’t bribed or rewarded a child! Sometimes we all just need to get through a plane ride or a trip to the store. But I try my hardest not to rely too heavily on this strategy.

Independence is a wonderful feeling that I want all of my students to enjoy.