When Your Child Is A Perfectionist
My nine-year old daughter is a perfectionist.
This past six week marking period at school she got her first ever B. And didn’t make the “A Honor Roll.” She made the “AB Honor Roll” and had a little certificate to bring home that said AB Honor Roll on it. She tore it up and made a new certificate that was identical except said A Honor Roll, and then hung it up on the fridge.
When I called her out on the fake honor roll certificate, she stomped up to her room and slammed the door. There was a lot of crying. She pulled up her grades on the school’s website to dissect every single thing she had done in the class for the past six weeks. And right there she saw, the one non-A grade that pulled her average down. I think most kids would see that one grade as an unfortunate anomaly on an otherwise perfect record. She saw it as a black mark that completely obliterated every other grade. She fell onto the couch, face down, “I am just so dumb!”
It hadn’t occurred to me before this that perhaps being a perfectionist had a negative side. It’s hard to find anything negative about someone who works very hard to get good grades, has never been in trouble in school, serves on the student council, never misses a volunteer opportunity at the nursing home, and is a nationally-ranked athlete. She seems happy, previous example aside, and is entirely self-motivated. If I could bottle her drive, I would make a fortune selling it to the parents of teenagers who are in the spring semester of their senior year.
She worries about things that she needn’t worry about. The what if’s rattle around in her head. What if I fall during a competition? What if I forget my words during a speech? What if I don’t get a good grade? What if, what if, what if….
I know from experience that telling her not to worry doesn’t help. Or telling her that she will do fine doesn’t help, because then her mind goes to the but what if I don’t? I always try to remain positive and say things like As long as you worked hard and tried your best, that is what matters. So far, it has done nothing to change her mindset.
And so my default response now when she says something like, “But what if I fail?” is to answer, “What is the worst that can happen?”
“I don’t know! What if I do?”
“What is the worst thing that can happen?”
“I won’t get a 100!”
“And what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t get a 100?”
“I won’t get an A.”
“And what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t get an A?”
It will go on and on, usually she will laugh and get the point before we get to “What’s the worst that can happen if you are homeless living in a cardboard box?” There have been times it has gone that far, where she truly believes that every small misstep will result in some huge failure down the line, but usually she is able to stop herself before we get to that point. She holds herself to very high standards and almost always meets them, however what happens when she experiences a “failure” is what concerns me. The tears and the drama while learning to do a back handspring, for example. She cried every single day with frustration until she finally was able to do one well.
It is a double-edged sword, because on the one hand I am constantly telling several of her brothers to apply themselves at their schoolwork, that their grades matter, that they are throwing away their brains. I mean all of those things when I say it to them. But somehow my daughter has taken all the words I direct to the boys and internalized them in a different way. It makes me want to throw my hands up and say, “They are just grades!” (Meanwhile, I silently throw daggers at her brothers, over her head, to drive the point home to them that I am NOT TALKING ABOUT THEM AND THEIR GRADES!)
There is a difference in my mind between a child in elementary school and a high-schooler who is just barely passing a class and saying, “Duuuude, a C is passing. Everyone else’s parents are glad they are passing.” Because you know what happens when your high-schooler says those words to you? You turn into your own parents, that’s what happens. Suddenly the words, “I don’t care about everyone else!” come flying out of your mouth faster than your brain can register what your mouth is saying.
I was discussing this with a friend who pointed out to me that maybe she isn’t a perfectionist, she is disciplined. It is true that my daughter works hard at things she wants to be good at. I love that about her–that she is willing to try new things and she will practice and practice until she is successful at them. I guess my wish really is that she didn’t beat herself up when she doesn’t do well on something, because inevitably that’s what happens in life. I wish that for her, the process of learning something new wasn’t so fraught with anxiety. To her there is no grey area, no pretty good, no great, it is either perfect or a failure.
Being a perfectionist and being disciplined seem to be tightly intertwined.
I have told my daughter that it is okay not to be perfect.
She looks at me, “But why would I want to be less than perfect?”
I don’t have an answer for that.
Has anyone else dealt with this? Do you think that there is something that could be done to stop children from being perfectionists? Or, is it something we should even want to change? Can we change it or is it just a part of their personality?