Help your child overcome perfectionism.

Lillian Gray interviewed by Lien Potgieter

As parents, we want the best for our children. There is an obsession with perfectionism. We want them to achieve academic excellence and excel at a sport. Over and above the normal school activities, we also want them to learn to play a musical instrument, go for dance or karate classes, play chess or do ballet.

Doctor Robert L. Leahy PhD from Psychology Today warns that all these demands we put on our children may cause them to believe that nothing less than perfect is acceptable and that mistakes are the end of the world. When happiness becomes dependent on being perfect all the time the thorny seed of perfectionism has been sown. Some parents might view perfectionism in a positive light:

 “I would much rather have a child who wants to approach life with perfection than a child that does everything slapdash or has no ambition.”

Dr Leahy explains that high achievers are motivated by the satisfaction of achievement and don’t heed to setbacks and mistakes too much. A perfectionist, however, is motivated by a fear of failure and the desire to gain acceptance. Anxiety causes mistakes to be seen as evidence they are not good enough.

Perfectionism then can have a significant impact on kids’ well-being and relationships. Self-criticism can eventually lead to low self-esteem. Frequent frustrations can result in tears, tantrums and stress. The fear of failure can curb ambition and achievement… This can keep them from reaching their full potential.

Lillian Gray, a South African fine artist and owner of an art school in Fairland, Johannesburg believes that art teaches us to deal with failure. 

“Creativity is a natural state of being. We are all creative and are meant to be creative. Creativity comes from within and needs to be explored and nurtured.”

“In the past year, I have met so many young children in my art classes who struggle with perfectionism. They tend to get stuck on a specific aspect of a project, or they don’t finish a drawing or painting because they feel that it is ‘not right’, or they give up in tears. They get anxious, frustrated, and angry.”

“Art teaches us that a mistake is simply a ‘beautiful oops’. A beautiful oops can either be erased, painted over or, even better, turned into something else.”

“We need to let our kids know that they can work with an oops. It is not the end of the world.”

Lillian wants to teach parents and children that mistakes simply opens up new possibilities. She feels strongly that art can teach children vital life skills and counter perfectionism in the following ways:

Art teaches us to value the process just as much as the finished artwork. During art class, we praise effort regardless of whether or not your child was successful. Instead of praising the achievement, say “Wow, I can tell you put a lot of work into this” We also, praise skills that are not directly related to achievement, sharing with others, remembering important facts, playing well, or congratulating a winner.

Art teaches perspective. Perfectionists tend to focus too much on the negative – the ‘catastrophic’ mistake they made. Creating art trains us to look at mistakes differently: either fix it or go with it.

Art teaches patience. Most of us are familiar Malcolm Gladwell’s rule: that it takes 10 000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. Art requires practice and lots of it. One cannot simply pick up a pencil and draw realistically, you need to work at it. Art teaches us patience and delayed gratification.

Is your child’s perfectionism impacting their ability to relate to others and the world? Book a kids art class with Lillian today view or email

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