Monday, December 19, 2011

Perfectionism and Homeschooling

Last week, I had an interesting (and by "interesting," I mean "difficult and heartwrenching") experience with Morgan. It turned out to be a learning experience for me, though I'm still not sure if I handled it well or not.

She's a perfectionist, see, and so am I (well, I'm in recovery). And this is challenging in itself, not because I can't relate, but because part of the perfectionism deal is that you don't really actually care what other people say about it when you're going over the top. At least in mine and Morgan's cases. Getting control over one's control issues needs to come from inside, so no amount of reasonableness from someone else is going to make a huge difference until you're actually ready to listen. (Again, for me--maybe other people are more reasonable than I am/was.)

So she had these assignments for her co-op classes and absolutely lost her mind over one of them. Now, homework in and of itself is a thing we rarely encounter here. She's very self-directed at home, so I don't really give her assignments on a regular basis. And thank goodness, because if I had to battle people frequently over homework . . . well, it would be ugly. (This homework advantage balances out the couple of disadvantages of homeschooling, namely, the fact that they are HERE all the time so it's hard for me to get a break from them and of course the house is always a mess.)

But I digress.

One of these assignments was pretty much done and there were no problems. The other one, though, wow. She was taking a class called Classical Book Club and one of the things they were supposed to do was have a book journal where they wrote about the book they all read for the session (Robin Hood) as well as listed other books they've read. Each time I talked to her about this project during the session, she was hesitant and evasive. I see this now as some sort of Sign.

And honestly, I couldn't really work up a lot of caring about whether she completed this assignment. It's not that I don't see the value in doing this kind of work, but in the grand scheme of things, I wasn't too concerned about her reluctance to do it. For one thing, this is an optional co-op class. And I know the teacher (hello, if you're reading this!) and I knew that the teacher wouldn't be upset if Morgan chose not to do the assignment.

For another thing, Morgan is 6.5 years old. Yes, she is academically gifted, and was probably the youngest kid in the class. But I think what she is capable of reading and comprehending and enjoying far outpaces her capability to produce the kind of assignments that are more appropriate for kids a few years older.  I was aware that this class might be a bit beyond her when we signed up for it, but she really wanted to take it, and I figured it would be a good experience. And so it was--just not the experience I'd had in mind!

But Morgan wanted to do this assignment. REALLY REALLY REALLY wanted to do this assignment. So I pledged to help her. And thus began a two-hour roller coaster of emotions.

She couldn't figure out where to begin. I gave her suggestions. They were rejected. I gave her better suggestions (ha!). Rejected. I gave her "one small step" she could do to get started (my own personal strategy for when I'm stuck on how to begin something).

She cried, she pounded her fists on her notebook, she yelled "It's not good enough!"

I told her many times that she didn't need to complete the assignment, that it was fine with me if she chose not to do it. Didn't matter. I told her it would probably be fine with her teacher (and it would have been) if she chose not to do it. Didn't matter.

She wanted a ribbon for doing the journal (each kid received a participation certificate, so I don't know where she got the idea she'd get a ribbon). She kept asking me if she'd still get a ribbon if she didn't do the assignment. I had to answer honestly--if that was the deal with the class, then no, she probably wouldn't get a ribbon. Tears. I even told her we could get ribbons at a craft store, if ribbon-having was the thing she was really after. But she wanted that ribbon for doing the assignment, so no deal.

She tried and screamed and tried. And everything she tried was NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Oh it was heartbreaking to watch.

Out of ideas, I finally just gave her some space. And got myself some space, too, because I was getting all keyed up, mostly because I was feeling frustrated that she wasn't even listening to my brilliant ideas, and that she was unable to accept my reassurances. That frustration was creeping into my tone of voice as I was talking to her, and I know that wasn't helping things. And it only took me a little over an hour of this to realize that "giving her some space" was an option! (Sheesh.)

After a while, she came to me, and serenely told me that she'd thought it over and come to a decision. She said "I don't really want a ribbon that badly. I'm choosing to skip the assignment." And all was puppies and rainbows after that.

So what did I learn?

  • I learned that there may be some early signs she is feeling worried/frustrated/or perfectionist-y about projects or homework assignments. I'll look out for these in the future. What I can do about it, I'm not at all sure, but at least I can prepare myself for the oncoming storm.
  • I learned to ask about what she thinks she'll get out of assignments. Once the ribbon idea came out, I was able to understand a bit more about why it was more difficult for her to make the decision to skip the assignment.
  • I learned that I should step out of her perfectionism/frustration/persistence cycle EARLY ON, as early as I realize it's happening, maybe, and certainly when I've reached the frustration point myself. I want to be there and be helpful and supportive, but I think my suggestions and questions were making it worse. It was only when we took a break that she was able to come to her decision. I think maybe what she wants or needs from me is merely a shoulder to cry on. I could be wrong about this--we'll see how this plays out next time. And I'm confident there will be a next time.
  • I learned that maybe we should start assignments a bit earlier than three days before it's due. Usually we do the assignments pretty close to the due date because sometimes if they do them early, they forget all about it. But maybe that's a Ryan thing. Maybe Morgan needs more time.
  • I'm glad the decision to complete the assignment was hers and hers alone. I think that part went well. And even though I can't get excited about ribbons per se, that ribbon was really important to her, and she was wrestling with values and the actions she must take to earn those values. In the end, she decided that the ribbon was not a value that was worth this struggle over how to complete this assignment. I think it's okay that it took her a while to figure this out, but I'm glad I stayed completely out of that decision and that it was hers completely. Always good to practice weighing values and making decisions about that, even when it's hard to struggle through in the moment.
  • I'm glad she took the class. In her calmer moments while the fit was happening, she was able to tell me large chunks of the Robin Hood story. She'd been paying attention and listening and reading her book. She liked the story and enjoyed the class. And that's all that really matters at this point. 

So overall, this was good experience for both of us. It's funny how different she and Ryan are from each other. Whatever my struggles with Ryan have been, he is very confident that whatever he produces for his class assignments are nothing short of brilliant and awesome.

And also, I'm glad we're on a break from classes for the holidays! So so so so so so glad.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

As a recovering--always recovering, never recovered--perfectionist myself, I understand the immense pressure a perfectionist child puts herself under. I remember wanting--needing--to make a certain kind of art project when I was 10 or so, but my poor hand/eye coordination didn't match my need to do it perfectly. As I grew older, I tended to avoid trying anything I could not do perfectly the first time. It took me a long time to recognize that pencils have erasers for a reason! Unfortunately, my young and inexperienced parents never bargained for a highly gifted perfectionist child, and they used to tease me unmercifully for any imperfections, making everything much worse. I am so glad Morgan has an understanding mom. It will help.

Sara said...

You obviously learned a lot from this experience with your daughter! I think the observations in your third bullet point are especially important: "I think maybe what she wants or needs from me is merely a shoulder to cry on." You'll probably often find that to be the case even as Morgan reaches her teen years. (7Sisters did a blog on that topic yesterday! ) Sometimes all of us just need to process our thoughts out loud with an understanding loved one.

Continued blessings to you and your family on your homeschool journey!
Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...


How does perfectionism develop? Do you have any ideas what might cause it?


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenn Casey said...

Elisheva and Sara, thanks for your comments. I'll check that link out, Sara--apparently I'm going to need it in the future!

Aquinas, that's an interesting question. I have some ideas, but they are too long to put forth in a blog comment. Maybe I'll try to address it in a future post. I can only speak for my own experience, and I'm not even sure "perfectionism" is even really a technical term or anything. I'll have to think about it some more.

Jenn Casey said...

Anon: You are clearly trying to provoke some strong reaction in me (on this post, and the earlier one too). But all I can muster up is a mixture of pity and amusement. I just can't get worked up about anonymous strangers on the internets think about me or my kid or my parenting.

Take your insults elsewhere until and unless you develop A.) courage to use a real name and B.) argument skills that are a tad more sophisticated than throwing out mere insults.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
brendan said...

Jenn: I think you should remove Anon's posts. I'd feel differently if he/she had anything thoughtful to say. But he/she is just spewing pop psychology crap, which would, if focused on Anon instead of you & M, reveal something very ugly indeed.

Anon: I think the smartest thing you've ever done in your life is to not reveal who you actually are.

Jenn Casey said...

I think I'll have to turn off Anonymous commenting for a while (sorry, Aquinas). Not that it hasn't been fun, Anon, but there's a difference between allowing for dissent and feeding trolls.

Brendan, I'll think over whether to leave the comments up or not. For now they'll stay up.

Jenn Casey said...

I decided to remove the jerky comments from Anonymous. While part of me found that person amusing in a pathetic way, I don't feel obligated to use my property as a platform for jerks.

This person comes to my blog from the Objectivism subreddit ( and lives and works in Thornhill or Brampton, Ontario. And needs to get a life.

Anonymous said...


Jenn Casey said...

I'm going to let the above comment stay up, because it's very ironically funny.

Anon: GO. AWAY. You are not welcome here.

ChristineMM said...

I look at this differently than you approached it. To me this is about making informed choices and accepting responsibility (yes even for a 6.5 year old).

I would have said to my child, "If you sign up for this co-op class there is homework this is like this and you must do it as it is part of your responsibility as a student and the teacher feels it helps form your experience in the class in some way. Whether you like the homework or not, I don't know but, it's a part of the class that you will have to do."

In my co-op the homework estimate was put in the course description so there was no surprise. Some kids chose to not take a class as they liked the topic enough to go sit in it but didn't want to do homework as they had homeschool lessons assigned by mom to do on non-co-op days or they liked the idea of the class but didn't want to do more work. And they didn't want surprises after enrolling in the class and starting to attend.

(Although in your DD case she was doing most of the homework, the reading.)

If you found out about the homework after attending then again present it as an option to do the homework and stay in class or drop the class.

I think the assignment was easy and very do-able for a 6.5 year old especially if you helped by typing out what she dictated to summarize the book. She also could have kept the books read log in Excel in an easy list format, or Word if she wanted to avoid trying to make perfect looking handwriting by hand.

It may seem small to you but if you present everything as optional and open for their rejection, even to young kids they grow up with an attitude that their opinion or whim or desire comes first and foremost ahead of things like obligation and responsibility to an outside party (i.e. teacher, authority figure, boss, police, friend,or spouse and anyone).

People who abide by the law, who are good employees, who are good neighbors, good friends, good spouses, and good parents often have to jump through some hoops or be bored or do things we may not think is what we want in order to just live through daily life in a civilized manner.

"I really don't want to clean this barf that my child just did on the rug but for the family's health it must be done."

"I don't feel like stopping for this red light but I need to so the other cars can go."

"This meeting at work is really boring how can the boss think this is worth my time, I feel like walking out, but I can't."

"I did want to finish watching this YouTube music video but my brother needs the computer to do his math work so I'll get off it now instead of in five minutes."


I am a perfectionist too, and I understand that whole part of the discussion, and others have already said good things about it so I am not addressing that much. I think you are handling that part well.

Perfectionists need direct instruction in time management so they do not continue to push off a task. There is a fear underneath (they may not realize) that they won't do a good enough job so they put it off. Then that gives them stress. Often they don't do as well on school assignments as they run out of time. If you can directly teach your DD this and get her to face that fear and push through and get to the other side, and use planning and time management early, she may bypass years of repeated action and failure before she discovers that fact herself.

It seems to me you want your kids to figure out a lot on their own and arrive at their own conclusions. Sometimes a little nudge by Mom can really help kids rather than letting them flounder for perhaps years. You have wisdom and I feel that parent's role is to impart their wisdom to their kids.

ChristineMM said...

A paragraph about the brain, your kids may think this is valuable information? It's real science.

There is actually brain science behind this, the brain which is anxious has different brain wave activity that impedes things like congnitive thinking ability, memory recall and other thinking tasks that would make it harder to perform well to write a paper, summarize one's thoughts in writing, or take a test.

---Thus time management: planning ahead and not waiting until just before the assignment is due to begin it is a good thing.---

PS My parents were totally hands off with my homework and school and I suffered for years procrastinating and pushing deadlines. I wish they'd been more active and encouraging me to do the work ahead of time and give myself small chunks of work over time instead of going A to Z in one night before the paper was due etc.

Kelly Elmore said...

Hi Christine,

I want to differ from you and present my perspective as a college teacher. If parents make homework non-optional, as in forcing kids to do it, the kids don't learn the actual consequences of not doing it. They receive consequences from the parents, but they get out of the consequences that come as a result of the class. In a situation different from Jenn's, one where homework really is non-optional, it would have been a very good experience for Morgan to learn what happens when you don't do your homework. Then, when she gets to my college classes later and mom isn't there to stand between her and the real consequences of not doing the work, she will have real information about why homework is important. I have so many students that were bossed so much by their parents (not saying that this is necessarily you) and not allowed to accept responsibility for their own actions and experience the real life consequences of not completing their commitments. Once away from their parents, they don't seem able to function on their own. I think letting kids make their own decisions about homework (with advice, of course, from a more experienced parent) will give them valuable opportunities to see what happens when a person doesn't choose the responsible course. I wish more of my students had had this kind of lesson.

Xa Lynn said...

What was your daughter's definition of "good enough"?

I ask because I have an 8 yr old daughter, with the same perfectionist tendencies. (I can't IMAGINE where she got those. Ha.) Anyway, sometimes she can tell me what her standards are. When she can't, I think she has simply let her anxieties run away with her, and she is no longer able to think clearly about any part of the assignment, and we should stop for a moment. Have a cup of tea (she gets decaf or hot chocolate) and talk about what "good enough" means that day on that assignment. Sometimes, that helps (whether because she actually defined her problem so she could solve it, or just because we stepped away from it for a few minutes so she could collect herself, I don't always know!)
Xa Lynn

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Christine, I read your blog about Jenn's blog, and I really think you misunderstood what happened between Jenn and Morgan. It looks to me like Jenn's desire to help Morgan was only feeding the perfectionistic fire. A break for mom and kid was definitely needed. Further, I did not see anywhere in the blog that Jenn allowed her child to think that there were no consequences to not doing the homework. Jenn did say, however, that this homework assignment might not have been appropriate for Morgan's age.

I don't think this is a matter of rewarding whims, rather it looked to me like a matter of making decisions about how to deal with a perfectionist child.

I have also taught young adults at the high school and college levels in different capacities in my three careers. I agree with Kelly, that kids who do not choose and learn the consequences of not doing homework also do not understand the purpose of it, and often slack off when there is no one standing over them, making them do it. If the goal is an independent young adult who understands the importance of the academic work she does, allowing for choice and consequences is a good way to go.

Finally, as the parent of a child with autism, I often did tailor homework assignments--when he was in school!--to meet his needs. He often got frustrated by his physical inability to write for very long, and really did call all such assignments "stupid." I learned very quickly that the discussion of the use of that term did not go well with the tailoring of the assignments that I needed to do, and divided the two lessons, homework and discussion of how to think about assignments that were not tailored to his disabilities. Since he attended all his IEP meetings by my request, he understood exactly what kinds of tailoring I would do for him and why. However, we had the teacher from hell in third grade--she refused to follow the IEP and my son was not learning--which is why we ended up homeschooling.

As a special education teacher with a great deal of expertise in this area, I think it is important NOT to assume that all problems with homework have to do with a child's whims. Sometimes it is appropriate to differentiate for age and ability with respect to what parts of an assignment should be done, particularly when dealing with a precocious child whose Ferrari hindbrain may be roaring ahead of the Dune Buggy frontal lobes.

Anandi said...

Wow, this is great - thanks for writing this. I totally see myself as a kid in this post, and see tendencies of perfectionist in my 2 year old.