The Right Way to Cope With Your Kid’s Perfectionism

Jules at Pancakes & French Fries writes about what she perceives to be the perfectionist tendencies her young son has inherited from her:

Mikey inherited my drive for perfection. Last week I hung in the laundry room some of my favorite drawings the boys have made over the years. Nico doesn’t draw as

Speaking of anachronistic dinosaurs...

Speaking of anachronistic dinosaurs…

well as Mikey did at his age, but if you ask him everything he does is brilliant. When he saw his pictures, he immediately pointed out everything that was awesome–and there was plenty of awesome. When Mikey saw my wall of pictures, he grimaced. This one, my favorite of the bunch, really annoyed him.

“It’s not my best work.”

Days later he saw it again as he was putting his baseball uniform to wash. He came storming back to my desk to complete his argument (I refused to take down the pictures days prior). “You know what really bugs me about that Allosaurus picture? It’s attacking a Triceratops, which is impossible. They aren’t even from the same period.”

I reminded him that (1) we don’t know any paleontologists so his gaffe is safe with us (2) he was barely 7 years old when he drew that picture and if anyone is allowed to take poetic license with dinosaur art, it’s the under-10 crowd and (3) too bad, so sad, I love the picture and it stays.

(Bolding mine.)

If you’re reading this, you can probably easily identify with Mikey’s seeing his art on the wall and grimacing! Fortunately for him, his mom knew exactly what to do: she helped him see the bigger picture, which I think is the right approach. I might have also made it clear to him that his concerns are valid – it’s great to be an expert on something, and to want to get the details right – but that you can take things a bit too far.

Meanwhile, baseball brings its own set of stresses:

For the first few weeks of baseball, practice was a stressful affair. He came home quiet, sometimes angry. He didn’t like getting his lunch handed to him. Even worse, he didn’t like the ribbing he got from his teammates. A few of them let him know he wasn’t the best player. Mikey let them know what he lacked in fielding he made up for in tackling. We had a family meeting that night.

There was one bad night where Mikey came home from practice, walked right past me, and went straight to his room. I found him laying on his bed, still in his dusty practice uniform. I sat on his bed and asked him if he was okay. He rolled over and looked at me with pretty blue-green eyes and said, “I suck at baseball.”

My first thought was that we should call the league and have baseball cancelled forever. After that, a quick call to the school principals of all the boys on the team to let them know they all deserved F’s on every core subject on their report card. In the end, I decided to go less Mama-Bear and point out the obvious. If he wanted to be as good as the boys on his team, he was going to have to practice as hard as they do. He’s at the level where good performance requires effort. Talent doesn’t flutter down into your lap like leaves from a tree during autumn so…it was time to think about winter ball, baseball camp, and all the other stuff the boys on his team do if being good at baseball was what he really wants. If he didn’t want to play baseball anymore, that was okay. This could be his last season. But if he wanted to keep playing, no more excuses or complaining without putting in the work.

He didn’t like that idea. He liked the idea of natural greatness. Yeah, well, so do a lot of people. But if the boys on his team proved anything, it’s that talent rarely comes naturally. We went round and round until he admitted that the idea of camp made him nervous (“You don’t understand, mom. There’s going to be 11 year-olds there.”) and that he was afraid of the unknown. I tried to give him some parental advice on fear, but I missed his hints on backing off in my zeal to be super positive Mom of the Year because he stopped me mid-soapbox and said, “Mom, I’m tired, in a bad mood, and feeling like being a jerk. Can we talk tomorrow when I’m in a better mood?”

I said yes, sure, of course, and that I was proud of him for being honest and that when he was ready to talk I was available and he said, “MOM!!” and then I left his room quickly.

Wow, she did him such a huge favor by disabusing him of the notion of natural greatness. That’s an example of the grandiosity underlying perfectionism (“things that are difficult for other people should be easy for me”) and also the tendency perfectionists have to deprecate the true process of success.

Mikey’s baseball saga ends well, with him actually deciding to attend baseball camp. (Jules notes: “At his age, I wouldn’t have done the baseball camp….the perfectionist in me couldn’t have handled the fear of failure.”) Midway through the season, Jules reports: “He had the best game of his life and did better than some of the top line boys, probably because he believes failure isn’t a threat. A possibility, maybe, but not a threat.”

If Mikey truly has internalized, at such a young age, that “failure isn’t a threat,” he is one lucky kid.

The only quibble I have with Jules’s approach, ironically enough, is with the title of her blogpost, “The Genetics of Perfectionism.” As I write in The 7 Secrets of the Prolific:

People often ask whether someone could be “born perfectionist.” It’s true that some kids are born with a more critical or judgmental temperament than others – any parent knows that. So it would be fair to say that some kids have a propensity for perfectionism. But compassionate parenting and teaching can help kids avoid perfectionism. Remember that criticality itself is not perfectionist: perfectionism is when you set unreasonable standards and punish yourself harshly for failing to meet them, are grandiose, emphasize product over process, etc. Criticality itself, in the sense of being able to make meaningful distinctions, is a good thing.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is so pervasive that most kids wind up having their perfectionist tendencies reinforced.

Looks like Mikey’s going to be one of the lucky ones who escapes that fate.

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