My son is a perfectionist.
I figure it must be a first-born thing because I am too. So I get it, I also like everything to be precise and right and true. I hate failing and I hate making mistakes.
In fact, over the years I’ve given myself a lot of grief for minor slips. Over time however, I have slowly learned to give myself grace in a lot of areas, but I still get that gnawing feeling in my chest and that twitch in my eye when things aren’t just right.
It seems my son has inherited this perfectionism and it drives us all crazy.
For one, he’s constantly correcting us - all of us:
“Actually, it’s a movie, not TV."
"Actually, you're taking a bath, not a shower."
“Actually, that’s dark blue, not purple.”
It often takes all I have not to snap, “Actually, just do as I say, boy!”
And I often fail at the not snapping (cue gnawing feeling).
I do my very best to be patient and understanding because I believe in the importance of doing things right. I want him to have attention to detail, I want hime to take care in his work and I think it’s awesome that he'e serious and studious.
I also want him to lighten up.
For a start, it's pretty annoying having the whole family constantly being corrected by a nine year old and it can be just plain painful to sit down and help him to learn because if he doesn't get it right the first time...
But mainly I want him to lighten up because he's putting too much pressure on himself, in all aspects of his life. My nine year old is stressed and that just isn't right.
What I hate the most is knowing that perfectionism is a heavy heavy burden to bear. It robs of you of joy, fulfilment and sense of accomplishment because quite frankly, no matter how well you did something, it could have been better.
“It looks great!” we say. “No it doesn’t, that line is crooked, see?” he answers.
I desperately want to do all I can to help stop it from becoming a deeply ingrained pattern. Because it can be a crippling and difficult cycle to break. So after some research, here are some things that resonated with me as helpful tools. If you have a perfectionist child, maybe they'll help you too.
1. Separate success from being “good” or “bad”
When a child does something successfully, there’s a tendency to say “good boy, well done!” so enthusiastically that your child begins to associate being “good” with doing things well. It’s hard at first, I know, but instead of going overboard with generic “good boy” praise when they do something well, try acknowledging their successes calmly, kindly, and specifically. For example: “I’m so proud of you for tying your shoes by yourself. It took some practice, but you did it.”
2. Focus on learning not performance.
In our family, I think this is the key. If a child feels that the goal is how well they perform, then even accomplishing an extremely difficult task (but making a few mistakes along the way) is going to be regarded as a failure. Why? Because they didn’t perform it perfectly the first time. On the other hand, if learning is the goal, then they are more easily able to feel accomplishment even if they didn’t get it right. Why? Because they learned something along the way and can do it better the next time round.
3. Teach persistence.
Children who are perfectionists often tend to want to give up at the first sign they can’t do something perfectly. They’d rather not do it than find themselves as a “failure.” Our son will often try something once, then melodramatically throw his hands in the air screaming, “I can’t!”. I am doing my best to calmly stand by and say, “Oh yes you can. I’ll stand right here with you as you try again.” It's hard, but I know it will pay off.
4. Praise effort, not result.
Use language in your home that shows you value effort over performance. Using phrases like, “I’m proud of your effort,” or “Well done for trying so hard” are much preferred over “That’s awesome, you’re a great…” Explain then reinforce that success is often a result of many hours, days, weeks, and years of effort. That success is never a given and it’s effort that counts.
5. Give unconditional love.
Children, particularly gifted kids, may feel their worth and belonging in the family is tied to their performance or their intelligence. Make sure your child knows they are loved because of their position in the family, not based on their performance. Encourage them by telling them traits and characteristics you love about them, about who they are, not what they do. Separate what they do from who they are.
To be honest, even if I absolutely master all of this, I'm sure that he'll always struggle with being a perfectionist, but as his Dad, I want to be there for him to let him know that perfect or not, I love him just the way he is.
Just as long as he stops correcting me.