The Perfectionist Parent

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Some fathers find themselves striving for perfection in ways that are subtly different from what moms do. "Fathers tend to have higher standards for their children's performance, particularly in areas such as academics and sports," says Dr. Basco, "and they may be more critical." For children, especially boys, this can have disastrous results. "They feel as though they can never match up -- particularly sons of successful fathers," says Wineman-Marcus. "They don't enter the race because they're never going to win it. It's just too stressful to try."

Experts agree that parental perfection -- pushing kids to get into the best preschool, to be thin, to be popular, to be the prettiest little girl in ballet class -- often has a profound effect on children. "The children will either identify with the self-punishing attitude of perfectionism and adopt it as their own," says Wineman-Marcus, "or they won't accept that attitude and they'll rebel." This rebellion can result in kids' turning to drugs and alcohol, hanging with a bad crowd, or deliberately underachieving as teenagers.

Children who try to be perfectionists themselves feel the stress of trying to please their parents, says Wineman-Marcus. This pressure can stay with them all their lives: "They'll always react to an internal mother or father who's demanding something they can't possibly achieve," says Dr. Stein. Even worse, Ehrenkranz suspects that parental pressure may be part of the reason the adolescent suicide rate is at an all-time high. "Kids feel they're being valued not for who they are, but for how they perform," she says.

Letting go

There is a way to break the cycle and protect our children, but for perfectionists it's a tough pill to swallow. "If you want to adapt to the realities of parenthood," says Dr. Basco, "you've got to let something go. You've got to lower your standards."

That's what Lorie Torpey of Hong Kong did. Torpey, a stay-at-home mom of 8-year-old Kiki, 5-year-old Dieken, and 4-year-old Piper, kept three parenting books by her bed and read them every night after her first child was born. "They had month-by-month sections on where your child should be developmentally," she says, "and I made sure my daughter was hitting every target."

She bought "all the right developmental toys" and spent a considerable amount of time walking around the house identifying objects so her daughter would develop good language skills. She played Mozart. And in an effort to provide the most nutritious diet possible, she baked a healthy, sweetened-with-fruit-juice-only cake for her daughter's first birthday.

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