If you have a child or teen who struggles with a strong need to have everything perfect, read on for ten ways to handle perfectionism in your homeschool and three approaches to avoid.
Some time ago, a teacher-friend invited me to her art class. The students’ drawings were developing nicely, when suddenly a girl in the back of the room started to sniffle, picked up her paper, and began crumpling it.
My teacher-friend rushed over. “No,” she whispered. “You may not do that.”
“But I made a mistake!” sobbed the girl. “It’s ruined! I hate it.”
The teacher, however, remained firm, insisting that the girl smooth out her paper and continue drawing. “Find a way to use the mistake,” she told the girl.
For a moment, I found myself feeling sorry for the girl and wondered if the teacher had handled the situation wisely.
After the class, we talked about the student’s outburst, and the teacher explained that the girl had been making a habit of tearing up papers and starting over because of a mistake. “It’s a habit that will cause her huge problems; it already has. She has to learn to accept mistakes. Perfectionism is not healthy.”
What’s so bad about perfectionism? Psychologist Thomas S. Greenspon finds that anxiety over making mistakes may hold perfectionists back from ever achieving success in the first place. “The most successful people in any given field,” he notes, “are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in your way.”
He goes on to say that “perfectionistic people typically believe that they can never be good enough, that mistakes are signs of personal flaws, and that the only route to acceptability as a person is to be perfect.” They set high standards for success in academics and extracurricular activities, and do anything to reach those standards.
In the process of reaching for these – often unrealistic – goals, children fail to learn other important skills: handling failure, self-compassion, and coping with unexpected problems.
So what can parents do to help their children who are perfectionists? Here are some DO’s and DON’Ts.
Do Provide Role Models for Dealing With Failure.
- Storytelling is a great way to help kids learn that it’s okay to fail. Tell stories about your own failures, what you did after you failed, and what you learned as a result.
- Read Beautiful Oops! by Barney Salzberg. The playful graphics of the book invite us all to turn mistakes into something beautiful. After all, the tear in your paper might become the mouth of a roaring alligator! The recommended age range for the book is 3-18 years, but it’s actually an inspiring reminder for ANYONE!
- Have a saying your family repeats whenever someone gets down over a mistake or disappointment. Here are a few ideas:
“Everyone makes mistakes.”
“The important thing is what you learn for next time.”
- Learn to use a different word instead of mistake. Try one of these: obstacle, or detour.
Do Expand Their Horizons
- Help children learn to see mistakes as opportunities. In beginning art classes I teach, I ask students to use permanent magic markers for drawing. First of all, the marker helps students make bold, decisive lines. Secondly, using the marker is a great counter to two tendencies of beginning artists: the tendency to make light, indecisive, feathery lines, and the tendency to erase over and over because the line isn’t quite perfect. I also remind students that “There are no mistakes. If you draw a line you don’t like, draw another line you DO like.” After all, a line that went off in a surprising direction is a invitation to think of a new idea! Such an attitude can apply to many other areas of life.
- Allow for failure. Assist children in small ways, but allow them to make some mistakes or fail. Having the opportunity to fail decreases a sense of pressure on them to always present a perfect front to the outside world. Reflect together to think of what you and they learn from the mistake.
- Help them aim outside themselves. Gordon Flett, a psychologist who does research on the impact of perfectionism, says, “There is much to be said for feeling better about yourself by volunteering and making a difference in the lives of others.” Celebrate the times when your child is generous, when they help others, and when they are kind.
- Have them try new things. What you are looking for are activities in which your child will not be the best. Help her learn how to handle being in such a situation. Do not let her discontinue the activity because it is difficult or uncomfortable. Of course, the goal here is to find small challenges, not overwhelming challenges.
- Set aside special times. Do something with them that they love to do, and take the time to delight in them, to notice them, and to listen to them. The special time may be spent going for a walk, playing a game, or doing a project together. Many parents like to do an art project alongside their child. This is especially a good idea if you, the parent, are not good at art, because it allows you to model several skills that perfectionists need to learn:
- Being vulnerable and willing to try things,
- Being able to turn mistakes into opportunities, and
- Being able to accept the fact that a project may NOT turn out the way we had hoped – and that it’s ok if it doesn’t meet our expectations.
- Take the emphasis off getting all the answers right, and put it instead on being able to discuss and reflect on what they have learned, no matter what the grade is (if you are the kind of parent who gives grades, that is).
Ok. Those are some positive things to do. Here are 3 things to avoid.
- Don’t call attention to the score. When your child does well on his work, and gets 100% of his spelling words correct, for example, don’t respond by saying, “Wow, you got every one right!” Furthermore, don’t brag to others about his great score. Instead, make comments like, “You worked really hard to learn those words.”
- Don’t respond to worries over doing well on tests or other competitions by saying, “Oh, you’ll do great. You always do!” Comments like that may sound supportive to you, but for the child it may feel like you are adding pressure on them to maintain perfection.
- We began with an example from an art class. Let’s end with a comment about art and other activities where the emphasis is on completing a project. A perfectionist may be inclined to fold their arms, give up, and expect you to step in. They need to learn the skill of persistence. It’s okay for you to help them, but don’t work on their project. Their project is THEIR project. It’s okay to demonstrate on a paper (or whatever the object that is central to the project) of your own, but let them retain ownership of their own project.
Using these approaches should help reduce the anxiety and fear that drives perfectionism, and should, instead, help the perfectionist focus on life skills that are far more important than being perfect.
Learn more here
- ArtAchieve art lessons are fun and easy to do as a parent-and-child team.
- Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg.
- “10 Ways to Help Your Perfectionist Child” by Education.com
- “The Alarming New Research on Perfectionism” by Melissa Dahl
- “When Things Don’t Go Perfectly: How To Help Kids With Perfectionism by Patty Wipfler