Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Parenting a Perfectionist

So here’s a surprising development: Morgan has a perfectionist streak that is driving us both crazy!

Now I am myself what you might consider a Reformed Perfectionist, so I understand her feelings. I reformed myself though, when it became clear to me that my perfectionism—which I had always regarded as a good thing—was actually a paralyzing force in my life. If I couldn’t do something perfectly, then why bother even attempting it? Consequently, the things in my life—my job, the housework, school—were either Perfect or in Shambles. (This was before I had kids, which is as sure a cure for Perfectionism as anything out there. I’m glad I figured most of this out before they arrived.)

Allow me a few personal examples before I move on to Morgan. This is how my thinking used to go (and still does at times, but I’ve learned to fight it):

  • Hmmm….I won’t have time to clean up the whole house, so I just won’t do any of it.
  • Wow, it sure looks like fun to sing karaoke, but I’m afraid I won’t be super-great at it. Better sit this out.
  • I am sure that the people on this project (for grad school) will not be able to write as well as I, so I will do the entire paper myself.

Results: Nothing ever got cleaned (although my perspective on that mess has changed quite a bit); I didn’t try new things that I might have enjoyed; I took on too much work in order to subject it to my exacting standards.

This is how I’ve changed:

  • Hmmm…I won’t have time to clean the whole house today, so I’ll just pick up all of the big stuff on my way through the family room and tidy up the kitchen.

  • Wow, I’m a little self-conscious about singing Rock Band into a real live microphone, and I’m not perfect about it, but it’s SO MUCH FUN, and really, I can carry a tune, so why not?
  • I know that everyone might not do things The Jenn Way, but it’s sure nice to have lots of help, and if there is something that really needs fixing, I can do it at the end. (I don’t have too many group projects these days, but that’s what I’d think if I was back in grad school these days. This also applies to work around the house not done by me.)

See the difference? Look at me. And it only took thirty-some-odd years to figure that out. So you can probably imagine my eagerness to spread these wonderful ideas on to my kids.

Now back to Morgan. This child is working in second grade math workbooks (on her own initiative, not mine), and is melting when she gets an answer incorrect. If she tries a new video game and can’t figure it out right away--melt. She refuses to try to form lower-case letters because “I just think they look too hard, and I won’t do them right, so I don’t want to try.” Or she’ll take a half-assed swipe at making an a, not do it correctly, and then cry, “See? I told you!!!!! Waaaaahhhh!”

I try to reassure her:

  • “Sometimes it takes practice to get better a new things. You practiced your upper-case letters and they look great!”
  • “You are trying your very best!” (But I know that’s not truly reassuring—it sucks when your ‘very best’ just isn’t frigging good enough.)
  • Why don’t you pause this activity and do it later? (As an aside, do all 21st century children use “pause” in this way? We don’t stop things, we “pause” them. We pause talking and using the potty and getting in the car.)

And she’s so stinking persistent. Sometimes she’s so determined to do the thing she can’t do, yet she can’t stop trying, yet she’s melting and freaking because she can’t do it, and she just gets caught in this weird Persistence-Perfection Feedback Loop. Spaz would be a good word for this phenomenon.

Ryan is like me, and has perfectionist tendencies too, but he and I are less persistent by temperament than Morgan or Brendan. Ryan and I just GIVE UP ALREADY, and never try again. Morgan, once she’s made the decision to try, has a difficult time giving up or pausing to take a break to collect herself.

I think the difference in natural persistence levels is what makes Morgan’s brand of perfectionism more difficult for me to deal with than Ryan’s. It’s also confusing to me, because the things she decides to be a perfectionist about seem random to me. Shoes on the wrong feet? No problem. Pants on backwards? Eh, no worries. Spilled an enormous bowl of yogurt all over the kitchen? It’s all fine and dandy.

But not being able to solve the question: How much is 1 quarter, 2 pennies, and 1 nickel? Complete disaster. And then I want to tell her—"You’re four. Relax. It’ll be fine. You’ll get it. It takes practice sometimes. How can I help you?" But I am unable to reassure her. :(

Actually, maybe it’s not random—she doesn’t care about perfectionism in the physical realm. She is supremely unconcerned with dangerous parking lots (sigh) or proper attire or whether or not she falls off of chairs. Maybe it’s more mental—solving math problems or being able to draw a picture that matches the image in her head or being able to recreate the perfect lower-case p with perfection.

Jennifer Fink had an interesting post lately at her blog Blogging ‘Bout Boys, tying perfectionist tendencies with giftedness (a topic which I’ve been thinking about, and a term for which I’ve yet to settle on a good definition). She writes about the stifling aspect of perfectionism, and offers some good advice, most of which I already try to do—let your kids see you try things out your comfort zone just for fun, let them see how you handle setbacks, let them see Mom and Dad as less-than-perfect. I especially love her rephrasing of the old adage “Practice makes perfect” into “Practice equals improvement.” Wow, could I have ever used that idea as a child!

So for now, I will keep reminding Morgan (and Ryan) of the things they’ve accomplished with practice, and keep offering my help, and continue to help them express their emotions. I’ll try to keep identifying “trigger” situations. I will let them see me try new things and fail (at new and old things—this part’s easy!). I will hug them and let them know that I love them.

I just wish I had the absolute perfect thing to say to her, to make it all better. And I know that such perfection wouldn’t be good for either of us, that she will learn through her struggle, and with our support. But the perfectionist who still lives inside me yearns for that perfect phrase. Sigh.


Kelly Elmore said...

I am not a perfectionist, as you well know, so I don't know if this idea will fly. Perfectionists everywhere might laugh out loud.

What about talking with her about purpose? What is the purpose of writing lower case letters? For people to be able to read what you want them to, so if they can, your letters are perfect for their purpose. What is the purpose of math problems in a book? Right now, the purpose is to stretch your brain and help it grow, so if you are thinking hard and growing smarter, you are doing it perfectly, even if you don't get every answer right. What is the purpose of Rock Band? To have fun, so if you are, then you are doing it perfectly.

This is totally the way I think of challenges, but it may not fly with other personality types. Let me know what you think.

cara said...

This so reminds me of my daughter at that age! I was putting the baby down, and when i came back , my daughter (just barely 4) was in tears. I asked what was wrong, and she showed me a piece of paper where she had written the alphabet in a spiral shape. She was inconsolable because she'd missed a letter. (ok, she noticed a letter, she missed 3). I had no idea what to say! Telling her she was doing really well for her age didnt help at all.

The good news is, she's now 17, and just walked out the door on her way to a doctors apointment, 2 community college classes, and a meeting with the small company she's doing some freelance graphics work for . . . she takes life seriously, I guess. She's still pretty dramatic about things, tho.

Daisy said...

Oh my. You've just described my daughter and myself. Yikes. I'm in my late 30's and still trying to reform.

This was a timely post and a great reminder before starting our homeschool day. Thx.

Beth said...


I am reading a book that I wish I had read 17 years ago (or maybe 37years ago) which will give you a different way to analyze what may be going on that is even more fundamental than perfectionism -- what may underlie and motivate the perfectionism. The book is Mindset by Carol Dweck.
This psychologist describes two basic mindsets which captures people's attitude toward failure and mistakes: one promotes growth and success, and the other creates significant obstacles to growth and success. I wish I had this framework when I was starting out as a parent. Although I think I personally have primarily a growth mindset, I have been promoting a fixed mindset in my kids.
Anyway--it is definitely worth checking out.

Mia said...

Maybe math games might make this more fun and forgiving? I have a few free math games that my kids' teachers recommended and actually required at my blog http://pragmaticmom.com

Jennifer Fink said...

Thanks for linking to my post! It's funny: I just wrote a post on perfectionism, mostly thinking of Boy #1, and your post clearly showed me that Boy #2 is also a perfectionist! Just today, we had the no-I-don't-want-to-make-lowercase-letters argument,as well as the I'd-rather-stop-reading-than-struggle meltdown.

(BTW, I recognized myself completely in your karaoke description too. I actually wrote an article about that a few years back.)

Sarah N. said...

Great post. Really resonates! I find that my older son (3 years old) and I both fall into this persistence/perfectionist thing. For me, it's been working to point out to him when I struggle with something and how I make myself back off. We've also talked about having a single word I can use to help him take a deep breath and calm down -- not working too well yet, but it might.

Rational Jenn said...

Sorry I'm getting to these comments so belatedly . . .

Kelly, I think that's a good suggestion, and I will try to remember to do that. And feel free to jump in with such comments if you see this happening with her.

By the way, it's nice to know I'm not alone in this! Beth, I'm going to check this book out.

I need to show her more about how I handle such challenges. I think I do this already to a certain degree, but I also think I use too many words. :o) I like Sarah's idea about using a word or a cue that it's time to take a breather. Ryan had a self-soothing technique that we/he used for YEARS--take a Deep Breath. Morgan hates that idea, but I'll see if there's something she can suggest. I think there might be a self-soothing aspect to this, too.

Again, thanks for your comments! :o)

Anne Briggs said...

Great post and so honest! I am writing all about perfectionism this month. Today I wrote about the parent-child relationship, which many psychologists seem to believe is the root of many perfectionist tendencies. You may be curious to read it.