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child caring

Driven to perfection

A tip-off: Toys lined up in a neat, orderly fashion

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / May 16, 1996

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When Julianne T. first saw a bent toward perfectionism in her daughter, two things happened. ``I realized that I was a perfectionist myself. I never admitted that before,'' she says. ``I also knew I didn't want her to be like me.''

In hindsight, she realized Luria, now 9, had had tendencies toward perfectionism since age 2, when her clothes had to be just so. But the defining moment came when she was a kindergartner. Luria's homework one night was to look in a magazine for pictures of words beginning with the letter, `h.'

``She passed right by a hat,'' remembers Julianne, ``and I said, `Wait a second, what about that?' and she said, `No, I don't want that one.' Right away, I thought, `Uh-oh.' I knew exactly what was going on: She had a picture in her mind of what she wanted and she wasn't going to be satisfied until she found it. It took her two hours. It was scary for me.''

To a parent who has neither been nor known a perfectionist, this may be confusing. What's so scary about a child who pays attention to detail? About a child who has determination and stick-to-it-iveness and takes pride in her work? Aren't these qualities we'd all like our children to have?

Yes and no. ``You want a child who works hard but also one who can be satisfied with her results,'' says educational psychologist Bradford Brown of the University of Wisconsin. ``You want her to try something, make a mistake, and move on.''

At the obsessive-compulsive end of perfectionism is the child who can't do that, who is unable to function because nothing is ever as perfect as he wants it to be, including himself. Only a few children fall into this extreme category.

Many, however, are like Luria. While they fall far short of being obsessed, they set standards for themselves that are often unrealistic and which interfere to some degree with their lives, sometimes so minimally that it takes years to spot.

``There's usually one or two kids like this in every class,'' says Gayle Macklem, president of the Massachusetts School Psychologists Association and the psychologist in the Manchester public schools.

Until this year, Luria, for instance, wouldn't raise her hand unless she was absolutely sure she had the right answer. In other words, hardly ever.

Teachers thought she was quiet. Her mother knew differently. ``She wasn't willing to take a risk,'' says Julianne, a sign she recognized from her own childhood. Luria also is frequently indecisive, particularly about what she should wear. At least, that's the label some parents might give her. Again, her mother knows differently: ``She just can't make a decision and be done with it. What if it isn't perfect?''

These are hallmark traits of the perfectionist, says clinical psychologist Lawrence Kuttner. ``They're afraid of failure and afraid of rejection, so they avoid risks. They don't try new things. They can be very stubborn,'' he says.

Perfectionist children are born or made, a product of personality or environment, according to psychiatrist Eugene V. Beresin. He is director of child psychiatry training at Massachusetts General and McLean hospitals.

When it's a personality trait, it's noticeable as early as age 2. A good tip-off, says Beresin, ``is a child who lines up his toys in a neat and orderly fashion, not just once in a while, but all the time.'' If he's flexibile and doesn't crumble when the line is disturbed, it's just a trait to be aware of, he says, but if he falls apart every time the line is upset, that's cause for concern.

If the tendency toward perfectionism doesn't surface until the preschool or school years, it's a learned response to parents' expectations, according to Brown.

``Most children have a desperate need to please their parents,'' he says. ``Somewhere along the line, this child has gotten the message that the way to do it is to be perfect.''

Typically, this child either has a parent who is seemingly never satisfied -- a son gets two out of three free-throws in a basketball game and the father says nothing about the successes, only about what went wrong on the miss -- or a parent who is neglectful. ``This child figures the only way he can get attention is to excel,'' says Brown.

The most problematic combination, of course, is when a child is born with perfectionist tendencies and also has parents who set high expectations. Not surprisingly, these parents often demand perfection of themselves and don't realize it. ``That's the real danger,'' says Brown.

Usually, parents convey the message in subtle ways:

- ``That isn't bad,'' instead of, ``This is good!''

- Frowns or glares accompanying positive words;

- Bragging when a child does something highly successful, but saying nothing for anything less.

Unfortunately, many parents miss the signals of perfectionism in their child because the signs aren't what we expect. For instance, instead of going on overdrive when faced with a challenge, this child is more likely to shut down if something looks too hard. ``He's afraid to fail,'' says Macklem. ``He thinks, `If I can't do it perfectly, I won't bother.' '' In other words, a child with perfectionist tendencies is often an underachiever.

He also may be a procrastinator, says Kuttner, whose book, ``Your School-Age Child'' (Morrow, 1996) devotes a section to perfectionism. ``He has a project to do, and he puts it off, puts it off, so the parent thinks the problem is poor planning or inability to organize,'' says Kuttner. ``But he's putting it off because the thought of doing it imperfectly is frightening. In the end, if he doesn't have time to do a good job, he can rationalize that the work isn't a true measure of him.''

Macklem says the perfectionist typically is very serious. ``The process is never fun to him,'' she says. ``The finished product is what counts and he becomes one with it.'' Most of the time, he won't take pride in a finished job, even when it's done well, and if he does take pride, it's short-lived. His thinking goes like this, according to Kuttner: ``If this one went well, the next one is sure to fail.''

Unchecked, these tendencies are scripts for serious problems, Brown says, particularly eating disorders and social and school failure. ``This is the child who misses deadlines, frustrates teachers and ends up with low grades. Afraid of failing again, he withdraws more rather than try,'' Brown says. Some children even end up with school phobias.

Socially, she flits from person to person, never getting involved enough to have a true ``best'' friend. ``She finds fault with everyone and doesn't take responsibility for her role in a friendship,'' says Brown. ``She's looking for the perfect friend, but she ends up unpopular and unhappy.''

The earlier parents intervene, the better. Julianne actively began to help Luria when she was in kindergarten by telling her that it's OK to make mistakes and praising her for less-than-perfect performances. She and her husband talk about their own mistakes, not just with Luria, but seemingly to themselves, knowing she'll hear them: ``Oh darn, I blew that. Now what can I do to fix it?'' In September, Julianne alerted Luria's teacher, something she wishes she had done years ago.

All of this has begun to pay off: Not only does Luria raise her hand now, she even jokes about her perfectionist tendencies.

Brown says it's important not to devalue a child whose perfectionism is innate. ``From his perspective, things are not right if they aren't perfect. So you work on getting him to accept compromises, acknowledging that it's not his standard,'' he says. It's also important to tell him frequently that you love him for who he is, not for what he does or doesn't accomplish.

Next week: Helping children cope with failure.

HOW PARENTS CAN HELP
- Channel perfectionist tendencies into an activity your child has particular talent in, where she can see she excels.

- If she takes hours to do her homework and still isn't satisfied with it, ask the teacher to give her instructions: ''If this takes you more than xx minutes, stop.'' Be prepared for an argument, even with this, though: The perfectionist child may tell you: ''I wasn't really doing the homework all that time, I was thinking about it.''

- Parents tend to get frustrated with a child who spends too much time on something. However, pushing her along only entrenches her more, while helping her makes her more passive. Think of yourself as a coach: be near but not on top or next to her; describe what she needs to do, but don't do it for her.

- Give emotional support: ''I know you can do this; you just have to start.'' ''What is the first thing you need to do?'' ''Tell yourself, 'I've spent enough time on this now; I gave it a good shot; I'm done.' '' ''You've checked it three times; that's enough. Let's do something else now.''
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