I have child who is a perfectionist. You would think that a person who sets a high standard is idealistic. If you have a child that is a perfectionist, you will know that it can make life really hard on themselves and often those standing nearby. (Especially us mothers!)
I think there are lots of different ways of being a perfectionist. A perfectionist may need everything looking immaculate. Some perfectionists cannot present any work unless it is flawless. There is the perfectionist that not only sets high standards for themselves, but also gets upset when others do not live up to their lofty ambitions. Or there is a perfectionist who will tick all of the above boxes and then some more!
If you looked at my son’s bookwork, you would have no idea that he is a perfectionist. Its scribble and scrawl would suggest otherwise. But I’m his mother, I know my son. The scribble and scrawl are simply my son’s way of concealing his dismay that he feels he cannot submit perfect work. (And maybe a bit of sloppiness.) My son’s form of perfectionism is to do whatever it takes to hide his imperfections. To draw back and not participate because of the fear of failure. He’s a complex perfectionist and it takes a person with insight to spot his insecurities.
I first recognised this when he was almost three years old. For the past 18 months I had been trying to teach him colours. He showed zero interest. Zero. I knew he could classify. He could name every piece of construction equipment on a job site. I had to learn the difference myself between front end loaders, graders and bob cats in order to answer his many questions. But other forms of classification – letters, numbers, shapes, etc. I got nothing back.
One day I suddenly realised that we had a conversation and during it he correctly named about three different colours. I started listening and realised that he could name his colours correctly. When had it happened? It was then that it dawned on me. I had already picked up that my son did not like failure. He did not want to participate in ‘learning’ when it meant that during the process he would be wrong. If he picked up a blue block and said “Green” and I said, “No, that’s blue”, he took it personally. Yet, when I thought nothing was going in the colour learning department, it was, and when he felt that he had mastered the colour coding we use in this world, without fanfare he started participating.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple to learn all information via this soak, store and later use, method. In life you often need to make mistakes in order to learn. For the perfectionist, this is a challenge.
Here are some ways that I am working with my son to assist him to rise above perfection and to be proud of doing his best.
- Be Patient and give them the chance to learn in a way that makes them feel safe, but know when you need to draw the line and insist that enough is enough and perfection is not going to be achieved. Give reassurance that “Doing Their Best” really is good enough. Acknowledge that it is not their ideal, don’t dismiss these feelings of frustration and be condescending giving too much praise. Teach them to be comfortable in giving their imperfect best according to time constraints or lack of ability.
- Give them time and opportunity to practise. Teach your child to pace themselves. If you know that producing a lesser quality end product is going to be stressful for your child, teach them to allow themselves enough time to practise and try to improve their skills or performance before the deadline. This will give them the best chance they can to offer their best. If everything is left to the last minute they will be stressed and it will probably result in tears, tantrums, and general lack of harmony within your household.
- Take the pressure off. My son finds academic work difficult. Combine that with a nature prone to perfectionism and there are plenty of opportunities for explosions throughout the day. (Like during homework time.) Learn how to pull back and tone down the environment. Your child’s inner tension is already stretched tight without you increasing the strain. Give them a break, let them go outside and jump on the trampoline and release some of the tension. Don’t let them give up though. Perfectionists like my child find it very easy to walk away and give up when the going gets hard.
- Encourage Honesty. My son will lie in order to hide his shortcomings. It’s a slow process, but I’m insisting on honesty and applying consequences for lying. It is far more honourable to be honest about failings rather than lie or disguise inadequacies.
- Applaud failure. After talking to my son about how making mistakes helps us to get better at things, I went through a stage of asking him at the end of the day. “What did you do wrong today?” My next question would be, “How will that help you next time?” I would then spend time smiling and making a deal of the fact that he acknowledging failures and more importantly that he was starting to develop an understanding that this was part of the growth process. I applied this to both academic and behavioural life. It was such a happy moment when my son once came to me to admit something he had done wrong, “Mum, I did this….but you know how you say it’s OK to fail, I’ve really learned that….”