Recently my daughter was helping me sweep the driveway. Storms and high winds had left lots of debris in the driveway and she came out, broom in hand, to help me clean up. With only a few minutes to spare before bedtime, I told her that we should take care of part of the job and leave the rest until the following day. Her response? “No, it has to be perfect.” If the driveway has to be perfect, imagine what a violin piece has to be! “No, it has to be perfect,” of course, is the mantra of every perfectionist everywhere.

Perfectionists can be incredibly endearing because they are so responsible. Give them a task and they’ll do it to, well, perfection. They throw themselves into the task at hand with every bit of energy they can muster. But perfection is an impossible and unsustainable standard. Eventually something must give under the weight of all that perfection. By the time most of us reach adulthood, we learn to moderate our perfectionist tendencies. The impossibly unsatisfiable and mutually exclusive constraints of life prevent us from holding ourselves to the universal standard of perfectionism. Along the way, however, many succumb to anxiety, low self-regard, and procrastination as a way of dealing with the need to be perfect. Since parents shape their children’s way of being in the world to such a great extent, we can help avoid perfectionism in our children or at least help them moderate their tendencies.

Why is perfectionism detrimental to musicians?

Musical performance is an inherently subjective and interpretive act. Certain facts about stylistic interpretation of the composer’s intent are simply not known. On that level, perfection is unattainable simply because no perfect standard exists. But most young musicians in their early years are more concerned about the technical aspects of performance they develop in the practice room. There, practice is at first an exercise in learning the notes, then later an exercise in achieving a high level of consistency. Most perfectionism strikes here. As pieces grow longer and more complex, errors are statistically more likely. At the same time, opportunities that rely on auditions raise the stakes for performance errors.

All musicians have some performance anxiety, while some have more than others. One of the most virulent forms of performance anxiety, though, comes from a mistake-avoidance stance, because it is such a tension-inducing condition. Perfectionism can also lead to unhealthy practice habits such as over-practicing and practicing repetitions beyond the point of fatigue, risking injury in the process. Ultimately, perfectionism can be associated with low self-esteem, procrastination, anxiety, and self harm.

How do I know if I might have a perfectionist for a child?

Perfectionists aren’t too hard to recognize. Child counselor and teacher Leah Davies, who has written about perfectionism in children, outlined some of the common features of perfectionists:

•    They are unusually self-conscious and easily embarrassed.

•    They are very sensitive to criticism and react negatively to feedback.

•    They may tend to procrastinate, dawdle, or avoid doing tasks.

•    They often have low self-confidence and may be socially inhibited.

And of course, they set high standards for themselves and are sometimes critical of others who don’t meet them. For many kids, the line between a genuine quest for excellence and perfectionism is blurry.

How can parents avoid teaching their children perfectionist traits?

Some of the elements of perfectionism are genetically-inherited. A child’s tendency toward positive or negative emotions and their anxiety levels are inherited to a great extent from her parents. Sorry kids, you can’t choose those…

But many of a child’s personality characteristics are learned. Even those that are innate can be modulated up or down by the parent’s interactions with their children.

Some ways of interacting with children that can reduce perfectionist tendencies:

  1. Avoid modeling perfectionism. Since children often learn that perfect is the only acceptable standard from parents who demand the same from themselves, we can be better role models by replacing the standard of “perfect” with “perfectly acceptable.” The standard we should be interested in is the standard of working toward excellence. It isn’t a perfect outcome we should be interested in; rather, it’s the honest effort at achieving excellence. Did you work hard and give it your perfectly human effort? Then you did a perfectly acceptable job!

  2. Make praise specific and low-key. The risk of over-praising kids is that they begin to associate a specific action with a global state of being. For example, if the child plays a passage and the parent says, “Oh, you’re awesome!” then the child connects playing with a trait that they must possess. It’s better to say, “I really liked how you remembered the bowing pattern that time.” Low-key, specific, and process-oriented comments make for constructive praise.

  3. Avoid comparisons with other children. By comparing rates of progress, kids sense that parental affection is tied to progress and they will do everything they can to hold onto that. Since the rate of progress is related to so many variables outside of their control, this sets up an impossible standard to meet. Most parents are circumspect about making direct comparisons, but we all succumb to more subtle versions of it by talking about who is in which book and who’s on what piece.

  4. Embrace and teach a growth mindset. In some ways, a growth mindset is the ideal antidote to perfectionism. The growth mindset refers to an orientation toward competence by growth rather than the result of fixed, innate ability. By emphasizing this orientation and the idea that growth and mistakes go hand-in-hand, parents can diffuse some perfectionist tendencies.

  5. Point out the cognitive dissonances of their faulty logic. Perfectionists raise their own mental tightropes to very high levels. Even when the stakes aren’t very high, they raise them. With perfectionist performance anxiety, we can ask them questions that point out the discrepancy between their fears and the actual outcome. Imagine this conversation between a parent and a child:

    (Before a recital)

    Parent: “I see that you’re anxious about your recital. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

    Child: “They would laugh at me.”

    Parent: “I’ve never seen audience members laugh at performers. How likely do you think that is?”

    Child: “Very.”

    (After the recital)

    Parent: “How was it?”

    Child: “It was okay, but I forgot to repeat that one section.”

    Parent: “So you made a little mistake. I bet almost no one noticed. Did they laugh at you?”

    Child: “No.”

    Parent: “Remember you thought it was very likely that they would laugh if you made a mistake? Sometimes we think bad things will happen and they almost never do.”

    This simple before/after interaction is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that plants the seeds of how children (and adults) can begin to test their assumptions about feared outcomes. By pointing out the dissonance between what they feared might happen and the reality, children can learn to counter their own negative self-talk.

  6. Love and respect should be unconditional. What happens in the practice room stays in the practice room. Imagine a firewall between the practice room and the rest of the house. If things don’t go well in practice, in a lesson, or a performance, let it go. If conflict arises in practice, let it stay there. Withdrawing love and respect on account of something that happens with their playing is a recipe for perfectionism and other neuroses, because children will do almost anything to look good in the eyes of their parents.

  7. Teach kids step-by-step problem solving and goal-setting skills. Perfectionists expect immediate results and become frustrated when they don’t immediately achieve perfection. Playing a musical instrument doesn’t work that way. Starting out, the teacher and parent work on bite-sized chunks at a time. Later, children learn to do that themselves. The more visible we make that process, the more control they feel and the more success they will have in practice. By working on smaller parts of a piece and setting progressive goals, they’ll learn that mistakes and progress are best friends.

  8. Teach children to use positive self-talk and ways of coping with negative self-assessment. The negative emotions that accompany perfectionism can be overwhelming. The running monologue in our heads can be tamed and filtered by pushing it in a positive direction. Children can be taught to identify negative self-talk and put it into the mental wastebasket. We can also model non-judgmental speech as a way of helping children avoid negative self-talk. We can learn to catch ourselves using judgmental language in many situations and restate it in a neutral way.

  9. Involve children in a range of activities, not only music. The most resilient people don’t define themselves solely by success in a narrow discipline. They involve themselves in a variety of interests and outlets so that if something is not going well in one area, they have others to draw on as a source of self-regard. The purpose isn’t to give kids a host of other pursuits at which they can be perfect. And they should not be overwhelmed by endless shuttling between activities. The purpose is to give them a more well-rounded range of abilities and deeper well from which to draw support and confidence.

There is a fine line between working toward excellence vs. pushing toward perfectionism. But recognizing perfectionist traits early can allow parents to shape their language and interactions with children in ways that tone down these tendencies. Of what value is any of these musical endeavors if children are so driven or paralyzed by the pursuit of perfection that they can’t enjoy it? The question they should be asking isn’t “Did I play it perfectly?” It should be “Did I say something important with my music? Was I true to the music?”

And no, the driveway still isn’t perfect. But it’s perfectly acceptable.


Davies, L., M.Ed. (2005, March). Perfectionism in Children. Retrieved September 28, 2016, from

Portions of this essay were published online at “The Suzuki Experience”

Alan Duncan is a retired physician and the parent of an eight-year-old Suzuki violinist. In addition to being a practice parent, Alan is an active collaborative pianist and chamber musician. A supporter of youth music, he has served on the boards of the Southeastern Minnesota Suzuki Association and the Southeastern Minnesota Youth Orchestras.