When our kids are worried about being able to do something or to do a good enough job on some task, we often tell them, “Just do your best.” Most parents have said this. And for some children, it’s reassuring because it lowers the stakes. But for other kids, this message can backfire, ramping up the pressure.
The whole idea of “Do your best” is reinforced by everyone around your child. Kids don’t often hear, “Wow, you did a great job of setting sensible limits and refraining from overdoing!” But maybe they should.
For instance, a high school student client of mine once wrote a 15-page paper for an assignment requesting a three-page paper. This wasn’t a passion project for her; she just wanted to do her best and had trouble controlling her perfectionism. Unfortunately, the teacher gave her an A+, which encouraged her tendency to overdo by a factor of five.
I’m sure the paper was excellent, but the cost to her mental and physical health was high. And what did she gain from all the extra hours she put in, beyond what she would have gained from doing a good job with a three-page paper?
What does “do your best” mean?
“Do your best” is an instruction that’s open to interpretation. Parents intend this message as “Just try.” Anxious, perfectionistic kids hear “Do your best” as “Do the best job you can possibly imagine!” They focus on the most perfect product they can envision. They may feel overwhelmed, unable to start such a massive and exhausting undertaking, drive themselves into the ground trying to produce it, or become tearful when their efforts fall short of what they consider their “best.”
If that sounds like your child, you may want to ask, “Who puts in the least effort in your class? What would that person do on this project?” Rather than coming down from perfection, it might help your child to go up from barely adequate in deciding how much effort to put into a project. If the problem is getting started, it may help to take an easy step first, to build momentum.
Not everything deserves our best effort
Anxious kids tend to see every task as equally important and deserving of full effort. But learning to prioritize is a life skill. Not every task deserves the maximum effort.
You can help your child learn to avoid overdoing by asking, “How much time is this task worth?” Whatever your child can manage to do in that time is probably enough. Time is our most precious resource because we can’t get more. We don’t want to give a task more time than it deserves.
You can also talk with your child about the idea of diminishing returns. The first bit of effort often gives the greatest benefit. For example, if your child is cleaning up her room, picking up the clothes that are lying on the floor probably takes less than a minute but makes a huge visual difference. On the other hand, she could spend hours making sure that the clothes in her closet are exactly evenly spaced, but that additional time-consuming effort has little or no payoff.
Finished is often more important than perfect
Perfectionism makes it hard to finish tasks because there’s always more that we could do to make it even better. But often, that extra effort is simply not worth it.
As an adult, you’ve probably learned the important fact that, for many tasks, finished is more important than perfect. This is an important thing for kids to learn, too. We feel less stressed if we have one task completely done than two tasks partly done.
It may help to talk with your child about what are the crucial elements of the task and what are the “just nice to have but not essential” elements. Maybe spend minimal time on or even just skip the latter.
You could also talk about the inconvenience to others or the additional strain on your child of holding on to a task for too long. Your child may feel anxious about letting go of an imperfect but good-enough task, but he’ll also get to see that the world doesn’t end.
An alternative to “do your best”
So, if you don’t want to say, “Do your best,” what can you say when your child’s motivation or confidence is lagging? Try saying, “Make a reasonable effort.”
A reasonable effort depends on many factors: the importance of the task, the time available, what else your child has to do, how your child is feeling… Reasonable effort is about making wise choices. It’s anchored in reality rather than in the imaginary standards of perfectionism. It gives your child some wiggle room by acknowledging circumstances and normal variability in energy levels. It takes practice to learn how to determine what is a reasonable effort, but it’s a path toward a happier and more productive life.