Thomas Curran: How Can We Teach Kids To Accept Imperfection? Many students feel unrelenting pressure to be... perfect. Social psychologist Thomas Curran warns that striving for perfectionism isn't just impossible—it's also dangerous to children's health.
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Thomas Curran: How Can We Teach Kids To Accept Imperfection?

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Thomas Curran: How Can We Teach Kids To Accept Imperfection?

Thomas Curran: How Can We Teach Kids To Accept Imperfection?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

Right now, kids are finding out where they got into college but don't know if they'll even be able to attend this fall. And seniors in high schools and universities, they don't know if they'll have graduation ceremonies this spring. Life is on hold. And a lot of these students may feel like they're not equipped to cope with the current situation, one that's completely out of their control. Because up until now, to succeed, they needed results in the form of hard numbers.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Tis the season for standardized testing.

ZOMORODI: And how do we measure those results?

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Standardized tests.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Standardized testing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Standardized exams.

ZOMORODI: Testing, of course.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Pass and you move on to the next grade. Fail and you still have some work to do.

ZOMORODI: In 2015, by the time the typical high school senior graduated, they would have taken 112 standardized tests.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The SC READY test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The Delaware Comprehensive Assessment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Pass the FSA Language Arts Test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The Louisiana Educational...

THOMAS CURRAN: And of course, you know, testing, getting a score, getting a metric and a grade is a very useful way to organize - right? - to set students from the best to the worst and everywhere in between.

ZOMORODI: That's Thomas Curran. He's a social psychologist who researches young people and perfectionism in the U.K., U.S. and Canada.

CURRAN: And you begin - you can begin to see how that creates a reliance therefore on objective outcomes, on outcomes in tests and scores, and you can extend that to sport and other areas of young people's lives where ranking and categorization are now rife.

ZOMORODI: Thomas says tests, sports, social media in a winner-takes-all culture puts a lot of pressure on kids to constantly compare themselves to others.

CURRAN: And so once people start to define themselves in those terms, and we're only really interested in how we do relative to others, then we're going to set high standards for ourselves because the only way in which we're able to succeed in this society is to achieve high scores, high grades, high performances. The consequences of not doing that is not only do we fall back in school, but that has implications for our college, which has implications for our future market price in the job market. So you can begin to see how we're teaching kids at almost every level that they need to succeed, that they need to do well. And that's one of the reasons why we think young people are beginning to internalize perfectionistic tendencies.

ZOMORODI: Perfectionistic tendencies - Thomas says all of this has made young people more and more anxious. They want to be perfect. And wanting to be perfect is not only impossible, it can be dangerous. Thomas Curran continues this idea on the TED stage.

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CURRAN: It's quite remarkable how many of us are quite happy to hold hands up and say we're perfectionists. But there's an interesting and serious point because our begrudging admiration for perfection is so pervasive that we never really stop to question that concept in its own terms. We know from clinician case reports that perfectionism conceals a host of psychological difficulties, including things like depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia and even suicide ideation. And what's more worrying is that over the last 25 years, we have seen perfectionism rise at an alarming rate. Suicide in the U.S. alone increased by 25% across the last two decades. And we're beginning to see similar trends emerge across Canada and in my home country, the United Kingdom.

In my role as mentor to many young people, I see these lived effects of perfectionism firsthand. And one student sticks out in my mind very vividly. John - not his real name - was ambitious, hardworking and diligent. And on the surface, he is exceptionally high-achieving, often gaining first-class grades for his work. Yet no matter how well John achieved, he always seemed to recast his successes as abject failures, and in meetings with me, he would talk openly about how he'd let himself and others down. John's justification was quite simple - how could he be a success when he was trying so much harder than other people to attain the same outcomes? See, John's perfectionism, his unrelenting work ethic, was only served to expose what he saw as his inner weakness to himself and to others.

ZOMORODI: You know, it's interesting - when I was growing up, it was cool to be a slacker. But now, I meet college students, people in their 20s all the time who are, you know, starting their second or third business. I kind of think of it as the Mark Zuckerberg effect - this idea that inside of you is an entrepreneur who can just kill it. Zuckerberg and Musk, I mean, they seem like perfectionists, and that seems to be something really worth pursuing.

CURRAN: That's a really good analysis. I mean, it's because we live in quite an individualistic culture and world where, essentially, we're the masters of our own destiny, OK. It used to be the case that, particularly in the U.K. but also in the U.S. just after the war, where there was a kind of collective sense that, you know, together we can prosper, right? That's very different today, where the successes or failures are owned by ourselves. And how wealthy we are or how much material advantage we have is down to ourselves. And that's why you start to see a lot of the young people engage in more entrepreneurial tendencies because, frankly, they have to. If they don't, there is no job with prospects or future that they can just walk into from college. It's a postgraduate degree, and then it's internships, and then it's extra little bits and pieces in a CV that we can pick up. And this is what I mean about pressures and expectations in young people have risen so much that it's understandable that they begin to engage in these behaviors and worry about the consequences. Because whereas before there was a safety net, now there isn't. And so there's a hell of a lot of pressure to succeed, and that fear of failure we think is something that is going on underneath this rising perfectionism.

ZOMORODI: Coming up, we hear more from Thomas Curran on perfectionism and embracing our imperfect selves. On the show today, Teaching For Better Humans. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, how we can teach for better humans. We were just hearing from social psychologist Thomas Curran about perfectionism, how young people are taught, pressured and influenced to try and be perfect.

And I'm just going to say what everyone is thinking right now - I mean, social media, right? That must be playing a huge role here.

CURRAN: I mean, social media is pervasive, particularly visual media forms of social media, things like Instagram and Snapchat, for instance, are very, very laden with images of the perfect life, images of the perfect lifestyle that, of course, young people internalize, try to recreate, try to live up to. And that's social perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, which is a sense that the external environment or others in the external environment expect us to be perfect.

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CURRAN: In 1989, just 9% of young people report clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. By 2017, that figure had doubled to 18%. And by 2050, projections based on the models that we tested indicate that almost 1 in 3 young people report clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. This is the element of perfectionism that has the large correlation with serious mental illness, and that's for good reason. Socially prescribed perfectionists feel a unrelenting need to meet the expectations of other people. And even if they do meet yesterday's expectation of perfection, they then raise the bar on themselves to an even higher degree because these folks believe that the better they do, the better that they're expected to do. This breeds a profound sense of helplessness and, worse, hopelessness.

ZOMORODI: You know, listening to you makes me feel, as a parent, kind of hopeless. It's really hard to know how to help your child.

CURRAN: I have a lot of sympathy with parents because it's so tough. Like, it's so, so tough to not engage in over-monitoring, over-surveillance because, essentially, you know, in this culture, if our kids fail, it's not just their failure. It's our failure, too.

ZOMORODI: Right.

CURRAN: And so parents do do take on their kids' successes or failures. And that naturally leads to more controlling forms of parenting, and there's a lot of data to support that that is on the rise.

That said, there are ways in which you can do that that don't necessarily emphasize perfectionistic tendencies.

ZOMORODI: OK, so I want to hear them. What do you think parents should do?

CURRAN: Try not to focus on the outcome. So when kids have done a test or they've got a metric or a score, it's important, really, to, as much as you can, downplay that score, particularly where in terms of where it sits relative to others, and ask your kids more about, well, what did you learn?

ZOMORODI: Right.

CURRAN: And really try and hone in on the actual purpose of education and that is the topic and the source of learning itself. And then the second one, just quickly, I think is how we deal with failure.

ZOMORODI: Right.

CURRAN: Not being afraid to fail is really, really important and in particular, making sure that when we do encounter setbacks, that we're compassionate on ourselves. How would you talk to a friend, for instance, who came with the same issues? You'd rationalize with them. You'd empathize with them. You'd essentially try to show them that, you know, it's not the end of the world. But we don't apply the same rules to ourselves. And so talking to kids in those terms, you know, how would you treat other people if they came home with that grade? Would you - you know, you'd be very different to your friend as you would be to yourself. So it's really self-compassion I think is really, really important and teaching them there is so much joy in failure and there's so much joy in imperfection. You know, we're not built to be perfect. If we were, we'd all be robots.

ZOMORODI: I wonder how much you think vulnerability and being able to laugh at ourselves matters in this conversation, too.

CURRAN: Oh, it's - they're huge, huge. Everybody, every one of us, has some areas in our lives that we feel we're not quite as good at or we might - there might be specific triggers for us in some way, shape or form. And actually, accepting vulnerability can be an excellent antidote to perfectionistic tendencies. And so I think you're absolutely right. Vulnerability is really, really important. Not fearing failure or almost celebrating imperfection and celebrating mistakes and setbacks because there are opportunities to learn and develop, et cetera, et cetera, is a really, really important lesson.

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ZOMORODI: Thomas Curran teaches at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Watch his full talk and check out his research on perfectionism at ted.npr.org

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