Why the quest for perfection can spell disaster for children

The desire to drive out every imperfection and attain an unrealistic level of both professional and personal success is a direct cause of mental health problems in young people, Dr Thomas Curran tells Dan Watson. Schools are part of the problem, he argues – and so need to be part of the solution
5th April 2019, 12:03am
The Quest For Perfection Can Lead To Mental Health Problems In Young People, Experts Warn


Why the quest for perfection can spell disaster for children


Just after the latest batch of smartphones were released, users began to notice something strange about their selfies. In every picture, they seemed to look better than in real life: younger, more defined, less blemished.

It turns out that, for some time, technology in phones has been helping us improve our pictorial appearance, and the latest models are doing it better than ever before.

Why would phone companies wish to develop such technology? Well, because assisted perfectionism is good for business: in an online world of filtered reality, everyone is looking for a way to keep up.

And there is evidence that this aversion to imperfections is increasingly a factor in all aspects of a young person’s life - with potentially disastrous consequences in schools.

Research in 2017, conducted by Dr Thomas Curran from the University of Bath, identified that young people are displaying increased levels of perfectionism.

“It’s clear perfectionism is on the rise,” Curran says. “It can be a really damaging trait and we need to take stock of this and understand it.”

The paper in which he published his results - entitled Perfectionism is increasing over time: a meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016 - found that, based on data from interviews with over 40,000 young people across the US, Canada and the UK, there has been a clear rise in the number of young people identifying with three types of defined perfectionist traits:

  • Socially prescribed perfectionism - which relates to people feeling they are expected to be perfect by others, such as parents, teachers or their friends.
  • Self-oriented perfectionism - in which an individual expects themselves to be perfect.
  • ‘Other-oriented’ perfectionism - in which people project their own desires for perfectionism onto others.


None of these traits is good news for young people, says Curran.

“Perfectionism is often rooted in a sense of not being worth anything, and you only feel validated if you do something that you, or others, perceive as perfect,” he explains. “And even if [you think] you achieve something to that level, which is basically impossible, it just creates an even higher bar for the next thing you attempt.”

This can cause stress, depression, negative mental health and even suicidal feelings.

So what is driving the increase? Social media is certainly a factor, according to Curran.

“[On social media], everything you ever see is designed to be as perfect as possible,” he says. “People don’t just post a picture; they post the best picture of a selection that they took, and discard all the bad ones. That sends a message that if you are not like this, you are not worth anything, you are deficient.”

This can, he says, knock on to a general attitude of perfectionism.

“This leads people to start to develop a perfectionist attitude,” he continues. “We know, from other research, that young girls are especially vulnerable to this and that it contributes to depression and low body image, for example.”

However, “we can’t absolve the wider social responsibility of this issue by just blaming social media”, Curran cautions.

For example, the recession and subsequent austerity have led young people to realise that their future will not be secured by simply doing what they are told, he says.

“Since 2008, young people see a world waiting for them in the future where jobs have been in decline and there is no guarantee that, just because you had worked hard and done everything society told you to do, that you are going to get a job, or the kind of job you had been promised,” says Curran.

He explains that this has made young people - and those around them, like their parents and teachers - feel much more insecure about the future. As a result, they think they can’t just have the normal level of qualifications that were acceptable in the past, but instead “the bar is rising all the time” and you have to achieve perfection if you are to stand out and succeed.

Alongside this, there has been a growing push, particularly from politicians, to sell the idea that society remains a meritocracy.

“Young people hear older generations selling the idea that this social construct still exists because it worked in the past,” Curran says. “But this makes young people worry they are not good enough. They have been told so many times that if you just work hard things will be OK, but it’s not like that anymore.

“We know young people won’t be as well off as their parents in the future, but we are still telling them they can be, and so the standards they set themselves to try and achieve this become higher and higher.”

Another issue is education itself, according to Curran: the marketisation of education driven by a relentless focus on grades, scores and leagues tables drives perfectionism, he believes.

“I see it at university - when students arrive, they are very focused on the outcome (‘What did I score?’) and not the learning process,” he says. “This is because at school, they have become so used to standardised testing and the importance of getting a certain score, it’s the only measure of success they have.

“Of course, teachers are going to teach to the syllabus and students have to pass exams, but learning is not just about scores and grades - it’s about knowledge and understanding. We have lost that in the race for metrics and how efficiently we can organise young people.”

There is plenty, then, for teachers to ponder: how schools present learning, how and when they use grades, how they talk about attainment and achievement, the myth-busting exercises that need to be done around presentations of the norm on social media and the narratives around social mobility.

Pitch imperfect

And all this needs to be tackled urgently: Curran says that looming in the near future is the very real possibility that new, millennial-era parents will impart the same perfectionist ideals on their children.

“There is definitely a risk that this will become self-perpetuating and it will pass from generation to generation. We may see in the future more conflict around this issue between parents and children, and this will invariably cause issues for teachers, too,” he warns.

So what can schools do to prevent this dystopian future?

Some of the considerations above are part of the solution, but underpinning everything should be, says Curran, the simple idea of failure - chiefly, letting young people know that it is OK to fail.

“It needs to be made clear that failure isn’t a weakness and that sometimes it’s a positive thing to fail, that setbacks are part of life,” he stresses.

“Too often, we shield children from failure, but it’s an experience that sets people up to move into a workforce [just as much as exams do].”

He suggests that teachers should also occasionally set tasks that have no score or grade at the end, but simply recognise the level of effort put in.

“We should not always be so outcome focused,” he urges. “Of course pupils, teachers and schools will always have to be measured on outcomes against a grading system, but that does not mean everything they do has to be geared towards this. Sometimes it’s important just to say, ‘Well done, you did really well there,’ and not feel the need to then define that effort with a score that they immediately fret over or use to compare themselves against others.”

The removal of sets with names that inherently put metrics of best and worst into play, such as 1-6 or A-F, is another easy way for schools to try and remove even just another small element of competition that adds to the culture of perfectionism.

Curran believes that, fortunately, children are beginning to recognise the dangers of perfectionism themselves - so with the changes above, we can begin to avert a perfectionism catastrophe.

“It’s certainly possible to see a dark narrative in all this, but there is room for optimism,” he says. “Young people are beginning to realise the social contract has broken down and [they] are communicating about this and creating a counter-culture of anti-perfectionism. Awareness is the first step in prevention, and as we talk about this more, it will help people realise it doesn’t have to be like this.” Dan Watson is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 5 April 2019 issue under the headline “Tes focus on… Perfectionism”

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