Perfectionism: Why it is stunting development in adolescence


“I don’t feel like an adult.”

This phrase said by many 18-year-olds as a joke may be more of a reality than ever.

The number of adult skills that teens have by 18 has been drastically decreasing in recent decades.

Today’s teens are on a slow road to adulthood. Data shows teens are putting off dangerous behaviors like drinking and sex, but also delaying jobs, driving, dating and other steps towards independence, according to a new study from San Diego University based on 40 years of survey data.

Some researchers from San Diego University believe one of the explanations for this trend is the fact that parents in America on average have only 2 kids opposed to the huge families in the early 1900s. Parents in earlier times needed as many as 13 kids to help around the family farm, making the supervision of kids very lax, leading to adult skills being developed much earlier.

The 2-3 child households of today are leading to stricter parenting, which shields children from gaining the necessary skills to succeed in college and the workplace.

However, I believe the stunted maturity of teenagers is not as black and white as it seems.

The lack of readiness for adult life, contrary to popular belief, may not entirely be at the fault of strict parents.

Kids are growing up in a world where failure is not an option.

With the growing controversy of participation trophies, it is easy to see that the idea of failure is being discouraged from a young age. Everyone gets a trophy, a good idea in theory but the idea of everyone getting the same thing no matter how hard you work is called communism.

What is wrong with failure? Trial and error is the basis for human development, you didn’t learn to walk the second you were born, it took time, effort, and failure before you finally stood up and took your first steps. This key part of development is being stripped away by the idea instilled in schools and sports that to fail is to lose.

That idea that if you are not good at something it reflects some deep personal flaw is the main source of the toxicity in our education system. To be good at anything you have to be good at everything. This is what is being taught by the ACT and high school GPAs.

Letter grades do not mean you know the content. The education system pushes so hard for A’s yet someone who has a B could very well know the content more than someone who has an A. Some classes are so difficult to get an A in, as many students can attest, but what will a student think when they get a C and they know the content? A student’s knowledge is reduced to one letter, something which is deeply demoralizing and horrendously ineffective. Many classes are based solely on how well you can do work. This issue is being somewhat combated on the high school level with classes like debate, media literacy, and AP seminar, but we need to force kids out of their comfort zones sooner.

Perfectionism and the fear of failure is keeping teenagers from taking risks.

However, perfectionism it is not just a problem in education.

In the increasingly competitive workplace, the struggle to find a career is an ever-growing dilemma for young people. There are new ways in which teenagers are being analyzed, be it through social media, testing, and school performance. The mentality of our society is that,= if you perform poorly in any of these categories you are inferior and less deserving.

The Psychological Bulletin shows that levels of perfectionism world-wide have risen significantly among young people since 1989. John Hopkins Health review reveals that comparatively, so have teen depression and anxiety rates.

This is no coincidence.

Perfectionism is a worldwide epidemic.

So, what can we do?

The first change that needs to be made for our future children is the way parents approach discipline. There is a healthy middle between too strict and too lax. The idea that parents should let children learn for themselves what is wrong and right is non-existent today. It is the job of parents not to shield their children from making decisions, but instead walk beside them and teach them when they make a bad decision.

The next change needs to be made by sports teams.

The participation trophies play a crucial role in stunting childhood development. The elimination of participation trophies early on would help develop the ability to lose. A trophy signifies achievement; therefore, a trophy makes you a winner. If everyone gets a trophy, then the line between winner and loser is never distinguished.

Not getting a trophy does not make you a loser; it just makes you not the best. Not giving a trophy out to every child forces kids to learn the harsh lesson that is if you want to succeed you have to work for it. Without this lesson being taught, we can see in the numbers that kids are scared of taking risks like driving, dating, and getting a job; any activity that does not give them instant success makes them, in their eyes, a loser.

The final changes need to be made by schools.

I understand the practical use of GPA and ACT scores; however, GPA and ACT scores are centered around perfection. If a student wants to take a class that they are interested in, but not particularly good at it is a death trap. It doesn’t matter that the student enjoys Spanish if they are not getting good grades in that class, their love for Spanish is punished because their GPA, consequentially will drop.

This idea of perfection is upheld later in life. This learned perfectionism is what steers teenagers away from trying things with possible risks, because they grow up in schools that teach them to stay away from things that could possibly end poorly. In schools, there should be room for error because without it an unhealthy and inhuman standard is set.

This high standard is unobtainable for many, sometimes leading to a road of substance abuse and unemployment because for most, giving up is easier than trying to reach perfection.

No wonder teenagers aren’t ready to be adults; the ones who are successful in childhood are too scared to take risks and many are plagued by a standard for themselves that leads to permanent mental illness. The ones who don’t make it have already given up and slipped through the cracks by the time they reach 18.

We teach our children and our students to reach the top of the mountain. Many fall in the process and the ones who, by some miracle, make it to the top, are too scared to look down.