Mentoring the perfectionist child

Published by Lori Pickert on October 30, 2007 at 03:24 PM


Along with being intractable, my older son is also a perfectionist.

I had hoped to avoid this. I was a perfectionist as a child (I claim to be partly cured), and I know what it cost me. I avoided any activities that I didn't immediately excel in. (Not that there were many.) (I kid.) I wanted him to be able to relax and enjoy life more.

Alas, genetics trump intentions, and he is a perfectionist to the core.

The boy uses a lot of erasers. He crumples a lot of paper. He shows me a drawing that I think is amazing in its detail and clarity, and then he crumples it up and throws it away five minutes later. I now try to grab things from him before they get destroyed, or I beg him to give them to me instead of tossing them. He says, "No! I don't want anyone to see that!"

It is difficult to compliment a perfectionist child. You say, "That is a great drawing. You really included a lot of detail." He responds, "It isn't that good. I didn't draw the feathers right. The eyes don't look right. I really don't like it..."

We do a few different things to try to mitigate this tendency. He's homeschooled, so he can't easily compare himself to others. (Before, he was in a multi-age class in a private school, in a similar situation.) I work with him to set reasonable goals for himself. He does a lot of art and other creative pursuits, where the enjoyment is in making and there's no particular end goal.

We talk about the process, and how fun it is to simply read books about something that interests us, visit places we've never seen before, talk to new people. We stress that mistakes are necessary for learning, and if you aren't making mistakes, you aren't learning. We share our own mistakes, and try to model accepting our failures gracefully.

At the beginning of a new project, we talk about what might go wrong that we'll have to deal with, or what difficulties we should expect, emphasizing that something will always go wrong. (Perfection is not possible!)

We acknowledge his perfectionism and call him on it, and we share our own experiences with it.

Finally, we make an effort to celebrate all of his achievements, so he won't gloss right over them and head immediately for the next difficult goal.

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. — Anna Quindlen

See also:

It's not (all) about the art

Perfectionism and praise

PTA: Preventing Perfectionism in Children


Comment by molly on October 30, 2007 at 06:35 PM

Ah, my daughter and I both suffer from perfectionism. Before we started homeschooling, her first grade teacher made it very clear to us that this would be an obstacle for Avery. I probably say several times a day that mistakes are the best way to learn, but I still hate making them! The kids and I really enjoyed the book "Mistakes That Worked" about all the wonderful inventions that stemmed from mistakes or unplanned events. Wonderful quote - thank you for sharing.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 30, 2007 at 09:58 PM

isn't it so great to see your own worst faults embodied in your children? :^)

i will check out that book -- i have anna quindlen's book "being perfect" ordered from the library. i really want D to read it! (because i don't need it, of course! lol)

Comment by frutabombastic on February 8, 2013 at 06:41 PM

The perfectionist in me wants to alert you that your PTA link isn't working. It's now here:

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 8, 2013 at 07:56 PM

thanks, fruta! :) and i like how deep you’re diving into the archive, too. ;o)

Comment by Sara R. on December 5, 2013 at 10:25 AM

Thank you for this post! My 7 year old is dealing with this and it's definitely genetic (my brother suffers from OCD/perfectionism). And this is WHY we quit public school a mere 4 weeks ago. Life is better now that he's at home...but he and I have a ways to go yet. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 5, 2013 at 12:57 PM

congratulations on homeschooling! :)

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