We Get It: Parenting a Perfectionist

by Jen on May 22, 2012 in parenting,we get it

In a previous life, before children, I worked as a recruiter. I conducted hundreds of interviews in my time and when I asked the typical question “What’s your greatest weakness?” I was always surprised at the number of people who said “I’m a perfectionist.” I mean really, how can striving to do the best possible job, at the cost of everything else, really be a weakness? Then I had my youngest daughter, and I have learned what a challenge being a perfectionist can truly be.

We first noticed our daughter’s perfectionism in her earliest drawings. Where my eldest daughter was busy scribbling at 2 years old, my youngest was meticulous. At a very early age her artwork was not experimental. When colouring a colouring page, instead of her crayons rolling freely on the page, she would use small dots of colour, placed strategically in the middle of the white voids. My daughter’s artwork was filled with circles…her attempts at making a perfect circle.
young child's first drawings
attempts at the “perfect” circle at 2 years of age

It made for incredibly neat artwork, and we didn’t really see anything too strange. It was as she aged that her colouring inside the lines and her need to create perfect shapes became an obsession.

young child's colouring page
an example of her earliest attempts at colouring age 2

When my daughter was around 3 years old she began learning how to write. Her ability to concentrate and focus on a task was amazing. The problem was that for every success she had, there were inevitable failures. My daughter had no ability to cope with failure. One “wrong” move and she was thrown into anger and tears. It felt so strange to be consoling my shattered 3 year old and telling her it was okay and that we could just erase her mistakes. Erasing was never good enough…she would throw things out and start all over again.

young child's earliest attempts at writing
learning to write at age 3
It got to the point where I could not sit down and draw or write or craft with my daughter. The pressure she put on herself to do things “perfectly” was too much. Too much for her and too much for me.

Her perfectionism spilled into other areas of her life as well. She became, and still is to an extent, incredibly controlling over her belongings. If you moved her toys from the position she had placed them in, she would have a complete breakdown. Helping her with anything became impossible. Only the way that she wanted things done was acceptable.

My real concern was, and is, her ability to lessen her need for things to be perfect and to find ways to cope with making mistakes. We have tried many approaches to try and help our daughter evolve. It has truly been an ongoing process.

- In the beginning I would purposefully colour outside of the lines to show her that making a “mistake” was acceptable.
- Instead of praising her with words like “the butterfly you drew is beautiful” I would say “you did a great job.”  Trying to focus the praise on her, not on the work.
- We encourage her to do more abstract artwork, not focusing on realism. Instead of attempting to recreate something she can see, having her create something in her mind…no mistakes can be made if it is from her imagination. A great example of this would be her recent George Rodrigue inspired artwork. She was incredibly happy with her piece. The artwork allowed her to use her imagination to create a magical looking scene, with unrealistic colours and shapes.
* Praising her effort and not the finished product.
* Modelling effective ways to deal with mistakes with her older sister and ourselves, as parents.

Many of the articles I have read about having a child who is a perfectionist tend to imply that parental and school pressure can contribute to the problem. We have taken inventory of how we approach our children and I’m not sure I see this as a factor for our daughter.  The perfectionist characteristic has been present in her always, it seems quite innate. However, we can see how the added pressure at school might lead to more difficulties in the future.

Truth be told there are still breakdowns. Work is still tossed in the recycling bin. On those days we try and focus on praising her determination. I now understand that her strive to be perfect will always be a challenge for her. My hope is that she can come to appreciate the effort it takes to get to the end product. She will make many mistakes in her life. As she grows she is learning that it it okay to fall down, you can always get right back up and try again.

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Today’s post is part of  Golden Gleam’s parenting series We Get It: Support For Difficult Childhood Behaviour. Please hop over and take a look at the other parenting topics being covered in this series. Other topics include; night terrors, self centred,   kids who touch everything, anxiety, strong willed and temper tantrums.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Kierna C May 22, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Thanks so much for this post, as a teacher of 3-4 year olds, I always have one or two who are perfectionists. Your comment about avoiding craft activities strucka chord, as I hate to see these children approach the craft table, as I know thay are going to end up totally frustrated. I also agree that it is as much nature as nuture. Looking forward to you hopefull joiing the outdoor play party, Kierna

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Mel May 25, 2012 at 5:50 pm

That is so super sad, Kierna! I teach a preschool art class, and absolutely LOVE teaching my occasional perfectionists, because I know that they’re the ones who are really thinking about and caring about what they’re doing, as opposed to some of my other students who are “happy enough” with everything they do, even if it’s carelessly rushing through to just get the project “over with”. Are they more of a challenge when they get frustrated or paralyzed by fear of “messing up”? You bet! Do I find myself wishing they would just hurry up and do SOMETHING and stop talking about it? Of course. But at the same time, the pay dirt is when you see them get through something difficult and out the other side feeling like they’ve made something they can be proud of. It’s getting the REST of the class to take their time and care about the outcome that is the REAL challenge!

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Mel May 22, 2012 at 7:14 pm

I shy away from spouting “good jobs”, and instead I go the complete opposite direction when working with my perfectionist: I describe something specific about what she created, “Mommy looks so tall in your picture!” or “There’s so much green.” Rather than being a judgement call (or praise) for what she’s done, it’s simply a supportive observation so she knows I’m really looking closely and paying attention unconditionally, whether it’s “good” or not. I picked up these tricks from Alfie Kohn, and I really REALLY recommend reading anything you can get your hands on from him, especially the book Unconditional Parenting. In the meantime, here’s an applicable excerpt from 5 Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job” by Alfie Kohn (http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm:

What can we say when kids just do something impressive? Consider three possible responses:

* Say nothing. Some people insist a helpful act must be “reinforced” because, secretly or unconsciously, they believe it was a fluke. If children are basically evil, then they have to be given an artificial reason for being nice (namely, to get a verbal reward). But if that cynicism is unfounded – and a lot of research suggests that it is – then praise may not be necessary.

* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or even just “You did it”) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!”

If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.” This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing

* Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking “What was the hardest part to draw?” or “How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?” is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying “Good job!”, as we’ve seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.

This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life — or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head

It’s not a matter of memorizing a new script, but of keeping in mind our long-term goals for our children and watching for the effects of what we say. The bad news is that the use of positive reinforcement really isn’t so positive. The good news is that you don’t have to evaluate in order to encourage.

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KitchenCounterChronicles May 22, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Thanks Mel, great information.

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Jenn O'Reilly May 22, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Look into the book “Ish” by Peter H. Reynolds. It’s a wonderful story that has helped my perfectionist daughter tremendously, good luck!

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Mel May 25, 2012 at 5:44 pm

That’s an AWESOME book! Also: the book “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg is great for helping break away from realism and toward “ish-ness”. :)

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andie jaye May 23, 2012 at 12:21 am

some of this sounds familiar to me. how good for your daughter’s sake that she has a mom who is attentive and noticed. the way that you’re dealing with it sounds quite beneficial to her.

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KitchenCounterChronicles May 25, 2012 at 9:21 pm

thanks Andie

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Ali May 23, 2012 at 5:47 am

Thanks so much for sharing this. When my daughter was 2/3 I stopped drawing ‘things’ for her as drawing sessions became her telling me what to draw. Instead I drew at her level – basic shapes, squiggles and scribbles…. and by doing this she started drawing again. I love your tip about focusing on abstract art.

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KitchenCounterChronicles May 25, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Abstract art can be so rewarding! Thanks Ali.

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JDaniel4's Mom May 23, 2012 at 9:46 am

My guy has been know to say “I quit” when things are going well. Thank you for this wonderful post.

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KitchenCounterChronicles May 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Thanks!

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Amanda @RusticRemnants May 25, 2012 at 9:09 pm

This is absolutely my 4 1/2 year old. She can be so very hard on herself and it pains me to see her be so self critical. We try to do things in funny ways, like coloring with our toes to take some of the focus off being perfect.

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KitchenCounterChronicles May 25, 2012 at 9:24 pm

What kid wouldn’t want to colour with their toes!? Great idea Amanda.

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happyhooligans May 25, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Great post, Rebekah! I’ve only had one extreme perfectionist in my daycare in all these years. Ironically this child’s mother would practically do cartwheels and give him an award anytime he did ANYTHING correctly. It was hi fives if he put on his coat, ridiculous amounts of praise over his artwork, as in: “oh my gosh “billy”, are you a professional artist? This is so good, I actually thought a professional artist might have done it”. If we did a craft it was “Are you kidding me? You did not make this craft, Jackie must have made this craft, right? You did? You made this? Because it is so amazing, I thought a grown up must have made it”. Not even kidding. ALL THE TIME. Was it any wonder the child was such a perfectionist? He was borderline neurotic. So sad.

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happyhooligans May 25, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Oh shoot, and somehow, I was thinking this was Rebekah’s post, Jen! So pretend that my first sentence says “great post, Jen!!” lol

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KitchenCounterChronicles May 25, 2012 at 9:25 pm

No problem…I knew what you meant! Sometimes parents can get a little carried away. Sometimes I catch have to stop myself from expressing my amazement at the things she can do! Thanks for stopping by!

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happyhooligans May 25, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Ahhh, now I know why I thought it was Rebekahs: I’m catching up on all the “pin a friend’s back” pins, and this was your POST, but pinned to Rebekah’s BOARD! Now it all makes sense. I was thinking “How the HECK did I make THAT mistake?” lol

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MaryAnne K May 29, 2012 at 9:42 pm

She sounds a lot like one of my kids! And I have a sister who REALLY struggles with perfectionism. I love your advice!

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