The other day my 5-year-old son Jonathan was working on crafting the letter D. It’s a tricky letter for a kid who didn’t know how to hold a pencil properly 6 months ago. He dragged the dry erase marker slowly over his handheld board, erased the marks, dragged, erased, dragged, erased—in a flurry until his movements started to crescendo with his voice. Then there was wailing and tears and gnashing of teeth (whatever that means), and the neighbors must have guessed it was the worst day of his life.
I tried really hard not to lose my own cool and asked him what he would like to do, since handwriting practice was not going well. He decided to go “cool off” in his room and try again later.
And while I was ready to be done with handwriting for the day, he was not. About 20 minutes later he came back, took the board back out and finished the task—beautifully, I might say.
Believe it or not, we’ve come a long way.
Jonathan is a chronic perfectionist. I say this because it takes one to know one. His trials often send me into flashbacks of my own childhood. There were lots of tears and desperate moments of frustration because I did not do something perfectly. At school, at home, in extracurricular activities—I just had to excel at it all.
I get him.
Perfectionists like us find great satisfaction in performance. We tend to be naturally talented and take pride in that.
When we perceive that our talents and efforts are not meeting expectations, we become extremely frustrated and discouraged. Anything short of perfection is failure.
I know that Jonathan’s life ahead of him will often be full of frustration. I also know that he will excel at whatever he sets his mind to. As a parent it’s my job to help him embrace and explore his talents and to understand that failure is not something to hate or to fear.
The messages my son receives throughout his childhood are going to help shape the way he perceives the world and his place in it. While I know that in some ways he will probably always wrestle with perfectionism (as I do), I can at least guide him in a beneficial direction. My hope is that as an adult, he will be confident in who he is and have a healthy view about performance in whatever he does.
Here are some of the strategies I think are important for any parent of a perfectionist child:
- Praise effort over talent.
If you have a naturally talented child, they are going to hear a lot about how great they are—from everyone. I did. And I wish I hadn’t. What that communicated to me was that my value as a person came from how well I performed in school or what a great soccer player I was or what a talented musician I was. And so when I didn’t get straight As or I made a mistake, it was only natural to think that I really wasn’t so great.
Fortunately, my parents often told me that they were proud of me for trying my best. I try to do the same for Jonathan. He naturally craves praise, and so as much as possible I focus it on how hard he works. When he was struggling with writing the letter D and then wanted to show off the finished product, I told him it looked wonderful and I praised him for having self-control over his emotions and not giving up on it.
Work ethic is a value that must be cultivated. Ironically, talented perfectionists can be somewhat lazy because often they don’t have to work hard. I was in for a shock in college when I, being naturally very good at math, failed my first economics exam because I slacked off in studying. Whoops.
- Nip comparison in the bud.
Perfectionists like to keep score. Any kind of score. We love getting good grades and filling out sticker charts and collecting all kinds of accolades. We also like to compare our scores to everyone else’s (maybe a little more secretly when we get older).
I believe the correct term for this is pride—and not the good kind. It’s deeply embedded within our characters. Last week one of the other kids in Jonathan’s gymnastics class got in trouble and didn’t get an ink stamp on his hand at the end of class. My compassionate son, full of grace, could not stop talking about this—particularly about how he (Jonathan) always does a good job listening in class and thus earns his stamps.
We talk about this kind of thing a lot. It’s a difficult concept for a little guy to wrap his head around, but any time he feels it’s necessary to measure himself up to someone else, I remind him firmly that he is to be concerned exclusively about his own behavior. And while he might naturally compare himself to others for the rest of his life, I hope he nonetheless internalizes this message!
- Show unconditional love.
As a young adult, I had grown weary of feeling like my life was one big performance. I craved authenticity in my relationships—I wanted people to care about me because of who I was rather than because of what I did. It’s one of the reasons I turned to Christianity; it was a relief to know that God’s love for me had nothing to do with anything I did.
Parents know they need to love unconditionally, but we fall short. I think my parents did a great job, and even still I wrestled with my self-worth as a teen. As a mom, whenever I snap at my kids and overreact in anger when they misbehave, I might be communicating that my love is conditional on their behavior. Of course, that’s not how I feel, but that’s what they perceive.
Be thoughtful about the way you discipline. Talk through the heart of your kids’ behavior rather than just being reactive. Don’t withhold natural consequences, but shower your kids with love and affection regardless of how they’ve acted that day. And lastly (or rather firstly), remind them that God’s love is unconditional too.
- Practice embracing failure.
Ughhh…this one is so hard for me, even now. Failing, or perceived failing, is one of the worst feelings in the world for a perfectionist.
I remember my mom vividly telling me, “It’s okay!” over and over again. That voice is now ingrained in me and I repeat it to myself when my throat starts constricting when I think I’ve fallen short.
But really—it is okay. It’s more than okay. With Jonathan I am trying to take opportunities to talk about what he’s learning when he’s not perfect. I ask him how he might do something differently next time. Hopefully he’ll have a little voice in his head when he’s an adult, spurring him on when he makes mistakes and helping him see the value in the journey.
The tough thing about being a perfectionist is that it never gets fully better…because you’ll never be perfect. But as I’ve indicated, I believe that the messages we receive as kids can play a big role in how perfectionist tendencies affect us as adults. If you have a perfectionist child, take heart! They will probably do very well in life. Just help them focus on what really matters.
Do you have any more tips for parents of perfectionist kids? Leave a comment below or on social media.