Perfectionism in Young Children and How to Help Written by Dr. Kaylene Henderson, Child Psychiatrist, and Parent Educator
There’s a perception in our society that perfectionism is a good thing, akin to ‘being perfect’; That it’s something to strive for or to drop into conversation in job interviews… Yet the reality is quite different. Perfectionism leads people to place unreasonably and often unrealistically high expectations on themselves, which, when inevitably unmet, leads to frustration and self-blame.
Of course, this can be very unsettling to witness in young children and it can be hard for parents and educators to know how best to help. Perhaps you have a young child who refuses to draw because their drawings don’t look exactly like those of an adult artist. Or maybe you work with a child who has become distressed by a small mistake in their school work and who has insisted on starting the whole project again (while the rest of the class moves on…) Of course the earlier we can help children change unhealthy habits, the better.
So let’s look at a few tips for how we might address this in young children. Firstly, be mindful of how you use praise. There are two ways in which we tend to praise children. ‘Content’ praise often draws attention to the end product, for example, “What a beautiful picture”, or, “That’s a fantastic block tower”. In contrast, process praise focuses on how the child got there. When we use process praise, we draw attention to their good ideas, problem-solving approaches, effort, persistence, concentration, and enthusiasm. While it’s helpful for all children to experience more process praise than content praise, this is particularly true for children with perfectionistic traits.
This allows us to draw the focus away from how impressive the end result might (or should) be and instead highlight the importance of having a go and learning along the way. For example, rather than saying, ‘That’s a fantastic drawing of a bus! You’re an amazing artist – what were you worried about?’, it might be more helpful to say something like, ‘It’s great to see you having a go at drawing. I love watching you try new things’. Of course, most of the time we needn’t praise children at all. Saying simply, ‘Drawing is fun isn’t it?’ is often enough to provide children with that important sense of connection.
Secondly, model making mistakes. Our abilities as adults generally exceed those of our children. Children may see us as perfect and strive to be the same. It’s helpful for little ones to see that we mistakes too, and importantly to also learn through our modelling how mistakes can be handled. Look for (or create!) opportunities to do this. When you’ve been asked to bring over the pencils to the table, you could bring the scissors instead and say, ‘Oops, my mistake. Not to worry. I’ll just go back and swap these over.’ Or, perhaps you could draw alongside your child and deliberately keep from drawing inside the lines, commenting as you go, ‘I love drawing with you’. By doing so, you model for your child that mistakes are okay, that they needn’t hamper your enjoyment of a task and importantly, that the end result isn’t all that matters.
Thirdly, consider how you react when your child behaves in an ‘imperfect’ way. Do you respond calmly when your little one accidentally spills cereal all over the breakfast table or do you tend to overreact? It’s important when we’re teaching our children that they needn’t be perfect, that our responses back this up. By accepting our children as they are – wonderful, ‘good enough’ young learners – we teach them to do the same. And that’s so much better than perfect.
Dr Kaylene Henderson (MBBS FRANZCP Cert C&A Psych) is a medically trained Child Psychiatrist, parenting specialist and professional development provider for the ECEC sector. She is passionate about sharing practical tips with parents and educators and does so through her popular website www.
I am in my mid-late fifties and have been a perfectionist all my life. It is a great curse. Even now, I try to persuade myself ‘good enough IS good enough’, but I find it extremely difficult to accept. I believe the current and fairly recent unthinking over-praising of children for pretty ordinary pieces of work, leaves the admirer nowhere to go when a child / youngster / teenager show a marked improvement in some effort. If a child is on his or her fifth version of a picture, having reject all the previous ones, serious attention is required. The child and teacher or parent / guardian / carer have to be in private with all the copies of the work. Start by asking which is the first version, then ask what it was about that one that made the student start again. No matter how tiny the ‘error’ appears to the adults, it is HUGE in the eyes of the student. I doubt there is space enough to go through all the process required with this one example. Ask which is the 2nd piece of work, examine it in conjunction with the 1st piece: then ask what is the difference for the student between 1 and 2, and why was 2 rejected. Take very seriously the reasons given. This is hugely important to the student. He / she needs to know that you do not think this is some kind of tantrum, or that he / she thinks he /she feels superior to the rest of the class. From as early as possible, tell the student that you think you understand what is going on. Tell him / her what you think is happening and ask for feedback. Tell the student that trying one’s best is a good thing, but sometimes we overdo our efforts, and end up not finishing the job. Tell him / her that even though you (yourself) try hard to do your best, you do make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. In fact, we learn from our mistakes. One of the things we learn is that nothing can be perfect in this World. This message of support and reiteration must be constant. Perfectionists almost never achieve their educational potential, as they have stood in their own way. When it comes to the workplace, the perfectionist is the one who is still there at 4.00 am because he / she knows some colleagues are sloppy in their work, never checking, and letting material slip through. These perfectionists examine everything, to find the errors and to remedy them. 12-14 hour days are common, 7 days a week are common: exhaustion and ill-health are inevitable consequences. They will have complete physical and mental break-downs, lose their jobs, abd eventually pull themselves together. They get another job, and the cycle starts again. It is something Montessori and other early childhood educators should be watching out for along with learning disabilities. Perfectionism can cripple a young person’s life, and self-blame is always the consequences. We tell ourselves if we weren’t so weak, and slow, we would have got everything done properly. I can tell you that is not possible. But one’s mind cannot accept that notion: it is a whisper from weakness and laziness. Catch the children early, teach them moderation, help them to accept that ‘good enough IS truly good enough’. Best of luck.
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