Ah, those tendencies toward perfectionism

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 8, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

I'm hoping you can help me. My son is a perfectionist (at age 5!) and if he feels he can't do something perfectly, he doesn't want to try it at all.

This is proving to be a problem as we are trying to work with him on his fine motor skills. He is essentially ambidextrous (which I initially thought was a good thing!) and hasn’t fully determined a hand preference yet. Under the advice of an occupational therapist, we are trying to work with him on his writing skills. However, more often than not when we sit down to work with him, he resists. Yesterday, there were tears, which is obviously NOT what we want.

He is a super smart little guy but I’m concerned that this behavior will be a problem when he enters kindergarten in September. Is this stubbornness age appropriate? What about the perfectionism? Can you suggest a few ways we can work with our son?

Thank you so much!
From: Dee, Arlington
Hi Dee,

It's not unusual for some kids to fall into the bell curve we refer to as perfectionistic. At one extreme, are those who become obsessive-compulsive, at the other extreme is the child who needs things to be done just so most of the time, but is capable of exhibiting flexibility and resilience. The majority, of course, are on a continuum, exhibiting a range of perfectionistic tendencies. When I  was working on a column about this, a psychologist told me that there are typically one or two children in every grade-school classroom who have some degree of perfectionistic tendencies.

What does that mean? Basically, that they have unrealistic ideas about how a task needs to be performed, whether the task is lining toy cars up or finding a picture in a magazine that shows something red. This child, passing by a fire engine, a red hat and red gloves, will only settle for a picture of a red car because that's what he's got in his mind. In grade school, you know you have a perfectionistic child when you think she's finished the homework assignment (and it looks just fine to you), but she says, "Oh, I wasn't really doing the homework, I was just thinking about it."

Here's what may surprise some parents: A perfectionistic child is often an under-achiever.  He won't start a project or to raise her hand in school because she can't bear that it won't come out the way she wants, or that she will have the wrong answer. He's so afraid of failure, that he rationalizes, "If I can't do it perfectly, why bother doing it at all?"

While someone who doesn't know perfectionism might not believe it, tendencies toward this trait can surface in a child as young as 2, so what you're describing doesn't surprise me. Here are some suggestions about how you can help your son and not get into daily power struggles.

1. Be sure to praise effort, not just finished product. For instance: "I can see you're really giving that a lot of effort." "Good for you for trying so hard!"

2. Separate the child from the effort. Tell him, "What a nice job," not, "You're a good boy."

3. Avoid faint praise. It's not unusual for us to say, "Hey, not bad!" when what we really mean is, "That's good." With this child, you really need to say; "Nice job."

4. Model how to deal with mistakes. When you know your child is in earshot, seemingly talk to yourself: "Boy, I blew that. Huh. Now what can I do to fix it?"

5. Be sure to let preschool teachers know about this trait in him.

6. Don't hover when he's involved in a project, and try not to get frustrated at how long it takes him to do something. Try labeling this trait: "I can see you have really high standards about how you want this to look. What would make this good enough?" Or, "Do you think you can spend x minutes more on this and then move on to Y?"

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.



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3 comments so far...
  1. My son is the same way (also 5). If he doesn't get/do something perfect the first time, or if it's something that he looks at and doesn't think he'll be good at, he doesn't want to do it. Any other time he is more than ready and willing to participate in activities. When he first started school (in public preschool) I made a note of this to his teacher. When we met for parent/teacher conferences, she did confirm that she noted this behavior as well. She noted when they were studying certain letters and my son would be really hard on himself when he didn't know the letter.
    She suggested a lot of what was said above. We also try to remind him that you always need to practice things, even things you are really good at. My son recently brought home the book "Franklin Rides a Bike" When Franklin wants to quit riding his bike because he can't do it without training wheels and his friends can, his mother has him think of things that his friends' weren't good at at first. I pointed out that to my son as well, "see we aren't always good at things the first time, so you need to practice, practice, practice." I think he's started buying in to that. As he's said to me a few times "Oh, I messed up on that. I just need to practice some more."

    Posted by momof2 February 8, 10 03:29 PM
  1. Great advice!

    Posted by Johnny Monsarrat February 9, 10 11:15 AM
  1. Also, I'd loosen up a bit on his "fine motor skills" if it ends with him being in tears. Not all kindergarten children can write their names perfectly - the R ends up backwards, as do many other letters. I'd work on increasing his hand strength and his dexterity. I'd start using clay instead of playdough. Clay is harder than playdough to mold, so it's good for hand strength. And he can cut it with a strong plastic knife, roll it, cut out shapes with cookie cutters, etc. There is clay that can dry (and not need a kiln) and then be painted, quite cool! To increase dexterity, I'd find something he enjoys doing and engage him in that - how about baking cookies with the measuring, pouring, and the hand strength of cutting out shapes, or baking break. Or, does he like legos (the small kind), knex, jr. knex, magnets, weaving or stringing beads?

    Posted by CT.DC February 9, 10 05:36 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. My son is the same way (also 5). If he doesn't get/do something perfect the first time, or if it's something that he looks at and doesn't think he'll be good at, he doesn't want to do it. Any other time he is more than ready and willing to participate in activities. When he first started school (in public preschool) I made a note of this to his teacher. When we met for parent/teacher conferences, she did confirm that she noted this behavior as well. She noted when they were studying certain letters and my son would be really hard on himself when he didn't know the letter.
    She suggested a lot of what was said above. We also try to remind him that you always need to practice things, even things you are really good at. My son recently brought home the book "Franklin Rides a Bike" When Franklin wants to quit riding his bike because he can't do it without training wheels and his friends can, his mother has him think of things that his friends' weren't good at at first. I pointed out that to my son as well, "see we aren't always good at things the first time, so you need to practice, practice, practice." I think he's started buying in to that. As he's said to me a few times "Oh, I messed up on that. I just need to practice some more."

    Posted by momof2 February 8, 10 03:29 PM
  1. Great advice!

    Posted by Johnny Monsarrat February 9, 10 11:15 AM
  1. Also, I'd loosen up a bit on his "fine motor skills" if it ends with him being in tears. Not all kindergarten children can write their names perfectly - the R ends up backwards, as do many other letters. I'd work on increasing his hand strength and his dexterity. I'd start using clay instead of playdough. Clay is harder than playdough to mold, so it's good for hand strength. And he can cut it with a strong plastic knife, roll it, cut out shapes with cookie cutters, etc. There is clay that can dry (and not need a kiln) and then be painted, quite cool! To increase dexterity, I'd find something he enjoys doing and engage him in that - how about baking cookies with the measuring, pouring, and the hand strength of cutting out shapes, or baking break. Or, does he like legos (the small kind), knex, jr. knex, magnets, weaving or stringing beads?

    Posted by CT.DC February 9, 10 05:36 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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