Child Caring

Only child who's a perfectionist and a quitter? Maybe not

Hi Barbara,
My son is turning 7 this month and is an only child by choice. He is displaying some personality traits that I am a little worried about and I am wondering if it's is because he's an only.

He is a perfectionist to the point that the teacher has emailed me numerous times about it. He has a hard time finishing projects at school if it isn't "perfect." Other kids have moved on to other things while he's still sitting there working on the same project. The teacher has actually given him an assignment to just scribble things so he can see it's ok that nothing on the paper makes sense. He's also a quitter. If he isn't great at the activity he's doing, he quits. He quit Jiu Jitsu last summer after he was moved up to the kid's class after being in the junior class and it happened last night at skating lessons. His friends all moved up to Youth 2 and he was placed back in Youth 1. He was devastated and crying, saying he hates it so we left.

I was so sad for him and kept explaining to him that it's ok not to be the best and everyone has different abilities but he wasn't having any of it. I was sort of quiet the whole night and he came up to me and asked me if I love him anymore. I started crying, it was a sad scene. I told him that my love for him is unconditional and explained what that meant. I started researching a bit on the topic after he went to sleep and I think that subconsciously we are putting too much pressure on him to be perfect because we are always telling him "good job," you "did great!" so he is eager to please. My husband & I agreed that we aren't letting him quit this time. He has to finish out the skating session that we paid for. With Jiu JItsu, he quit mid contract so we were stuck paying $125/mo for the last 5 months!

From: Mom in the 'burbs, west of Boston

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Dear Mom in the 'burbs,

Before you jump to the conclusion that your only child is a perfectionist and a quitter, let's tease these issues apart.

First, let's talk about children who are seemingly driven to be perfectionists. Is your child unable to function if life doesn't meet his expectation of being as "perfect" as he wants? Or does he set expectations in his head that are unrealistic and which interfere to some degree with his life? That's a distinction that may sound like hair-splitting but you probably know what I'm talking about.

Here's the other thing: perfectionism can be part of the way a child is wired -- a personality trait he or she is born with -- or it can be a learned behavior. When he was 2, did he line up his toys just so and go ballistic if the line was disturbed, even accidentally? That's likely his wiring. Has this trait surfaced in preschool or later? That's more likely a tendency, a learned response to parent's expectations.

Is this more likely to surface in children who have no siblings? There's been lots of research on this but I'm speaking more as a parent of only one child and, I agree, in a one-child family, parents can unwittingly put too much pressure on a child to succeed. I remember realizing this when our son was in third or fourth grade and creating a book report or something like that. My husband and I were both in the room with him, as we were wont to do, not helping, but "just to show our support," as we liked to say. That night, it suddenly became obvious to both of us adults: Two parents was too much attention.
I put this to a researcher -- being able to bounce my issues off professionals was the biggest advantage of writing my column -- and I never forgot the advice I got, which I pass on to you: Parent an only child as if there are more. Translation: if you had two children doing homework on a given night, both parents wouldn't be able to be with each one. The same is true of praise --

Other ideas:
1. Stay away from the abstract ideas you're describing to him. Instead, talk about something being "good enough."

2. Make sure you are a role model for "good enough." Sort of mumble aloud to yourself so he can hear you: "I wish I had more time to do X, but, you know, I'm gonna be happy with good enough."

3. Praise his process and work ethic more than the result: "You're a good worker;" " I like the way you listen to directions." more than the result.

4. Ask the teacher to tell him how long homework or an in-class assignment should take, with the instruction to stop when the time is up. At home, set the timer so the timer, not you, is saying, "Stop now."

The third issue is whether to let a child quit an extra curricular. Honestly, at this age, I don't think it's a big deal; it's not as if he will let down a team or a friend. Is he mature enough to understand that the activities cost money, and that the point of them is to try out different ones to see which ones are the most fun? You can agree that he doesn't have to do this again, but you want him to finish it out this time for reasons. Or, you can agree that he can quit this time, but with the next activity, you'll all agree to some rules:
1. It has to be something he really wants. He's the one who chooses, not you.
2. You'll observe the activity together before deciding, by watching the class/coach/ in action: observe the setting, the noise level, the odor (some kids quit swimming because of the chlorine smell!), the physicality.
3. Next time, he'll have to promise to stay with the whole program even if he doesn't like it.