I’d like to write about perfectionism from a place of experience – my 6 year old daughter is a perfectionist. I used to be too. In fact, I still am, but being that I’m an adult, I don’t cry anymore. (Well, not as often, anyway.) I use other coping mechanisms. In the end, perfectionism is perfectionism.
First, I want to say that nothing is wrong with being a perfectionist. It’s a personality trait. And instead of looking at it like something’s wrong, think of it as something to work with, and to expect.
My daughter didn’t let me know she could read until she was able to do it with confidence. She doesn’t like to do classes or join groups that are doing things she’s hasn’t mastered already. She needs to watch for a while, have a chance to try it herself when nobody is looking, and maybe, later, she might participate. She also won’t write something if she thinks it’ll be wrong. She doesn’t like me pointing out when she’s done something wrong. She doesn’t like to make mistakes in front of people.
I was the same way as a kid. School didn’t help me one bit, BTW. Probably made it worse, because I got praise when I was perfect, and was told I wasn’t living up to my potential when I wasn’t. But there’s also an expectation to perform in school. And that was where I had a horrible time – I had to perform on things that I wasn’t perfect at. The memories I have of humiliation make me very understanding of how my daughter feels when she can’t be perfect in front of others.
What I’ve done for my daughter is to let her be her. If she doesn’t want to write because she can’t do it, I try to find another way she can express herself. Someone mentioned art, and it’s interesting – Allison loves art. I think indeed it is because there is no right way to be artistic. She doesn’t have to be perfect at it. Although, even with art, she does sometimes get really upset that her dog doesn’t look anything like a dog, or the dog she wanted to draw.
Letting her be, and letting her do the kind of work that she is comfortable with, has given her a lot of chances to feel good about herself, and to let her perfectionism shine through without being criticized for who she is. I don’t judge the value of her work on whether it’s perfect or not. But she is obviously happy when she can do something without being coerced into it. So I give her lots of support when she’s done something that she’s proud of. And when she makes mistakes, I don’t make a big deal about it.
For a while, she refused to write the number 9 or the letter P. She couldn’t remember which one went which way, so she wouldn’t do it. When she was doing a project or a workbook or something, and needed to write a 9 or P, she would ask me to do it, and so I did. If I didn’t, she would get upset, and either stop the project, or do the project crying. It’s more important to me that she feel good about her project. So I helped her.
Now, she’s almost 7, and she writes her 9’s and P’s about 50% of the time. She’ll even guess and write them backwards. When I point out they are backwards, she’ll change them without really thinking about it much. Or she’ll ask me to write it for her. No biggie. It’s really no biggie. And if I truly believe that, it rubs off on her. She’s starting to see that the pressure is coming from inside, not mommy. Gives her more of a perspective of how to manage.
I didn’t learn to manage my perfectionism until I was out of school, and realized that I had a choice. I still prefer perfect results, and I’m an overachiever for that reason. But after having time out of school, away from the external pressure to be perfect, and being an adult, able to see the difference between the two, I was able to figure out coping mechanisms that give me the satisfaction of being a perfectionist, while learning to be OK with my mistakes.
At 6, kids are still really little. They have lots of time to learn to write. And if she’s a perfectionist, she probably will want to wait until she’s figured it out before practicing and doing it in front of others. My daughter did that with reading, writing, math, gymnastics, pretty much everything so far – she will wait and wait until the time is right, and then on her own terms, she’ll come out doing what I thought she was neglecting all along. She wasn’t neglecting learning how to read or write or do a forward roll – she was waiting until she was ready.
I have learned to let my daughter go at her own pace. My main focus with her isn’t to teach her to read or to write or anything in specific – but to have a good relationship with herself and with the world around her. She’s so damn smart, that she won’t have any problem learning anything she sets her mind to. She’s shown me that. My job is to help her understand herself, accept herself and be comfortable in her skin. To accept her, love her and show her things in a way that lets her discover but not have to perform.
Working with who she is, is the easiest thing. It’s what I wanted when I was a kid, and it’s what finally got me through when I was an adult – to have found someone who was willing to say, “how you are is OK.” I hate being pressured into doing things I’m not comfortable with. It’s easy to persuade me to do things, even if I don’t want to, because even though I’m a perfectionist, I’m also a people-pleaser. That’s a hard combination to be. (Allison isn’t, thank goodness). What that meant as a kid, was that I was pressured into doing something (really often, heck, I was in school), and then I felt compelled to do it perfectly, even though I really didn’t want to do it. So I convinced myself I wanted to do it, and when it wasn’t perfect, hated myself for it – and the cycle went around and around. I’ve learned, as an adult, now to stand up for myself, and say “no” when I’m not comfortable, and when it’s something I know I can’t do. I still struggle with my perfectionism. It’s a life-management thing.
Another aspect of perfectionism is not wanting to disappoint others. Or one’s self. For my almost 7 year old daughter, the key is to find a way that she can get the thing done without disappointing herself. Distraction and redirection have helped with that.
My son came up with a GREAT way for my daughter to cope with 9’s. He said, “All you have to do is turn the paper upside down and write a 6. That makes it a 9.”
Perfectionists are wonderful kids to have because they make us look at the big picture, and stop being so darned focussed on the little things. It’s the big picture – relationships, many paths to success and being comfortable with who we are – those are the important things. If we got those, we can work it out. We can find our way. My perfectionist daughter taught me that. So did my crazy, “I’ll try anything at all, because I have no fear and no idea how dangerous this is” son and daughter. They taught me that all these personality differences and quirks and things that seem so annoying aren’t the important things. They are distractions from what’s real and important – being OK with who we are and playing with the cards we’ve been dealt. Every hand can win, it’s all a matter of what rules we play by.