preschool perfectionism

Hm… I started this post about a year ago and kindergarten is about to start, so maybe I should finish it.  I don’t have the books on hand that I was going to cite, so this’ll be a lot more hand waving and a lot less quoting (watch me not be a perfectionist!).

One of the things we want for our child is that ze be able to take risks (measured ones, anyway), and able to achieve at hir desired level.  We don’t want hir to be paralyzed by fear as so often the best and brightest are.  We want hir to be used to making mistakes and not scared by the prospect of sometimes being wrong, so long as ze learns from those mistakes.

Perfectionism is a scary thing.  It can keep us from achieving our goals.  It can make us afraid of taking risks, even measured ones.  In gifted kids, perfectionism can start young.

About a year ago we started noticing signs of it in our child.  Ze would be terrified of making mistakes, ze would say, “I don’t know” to things that ze did know, especially if we misheard the first time ze answered and we asked hir to repeat.  If we’d say, “just guess,” ze would refuse to guess.  At school the teacher told us DC could read just fine but couldn’t comprehend, which we knew not to be true as ze would rush into our office in the evenings with long explanations of whatever exciting thing was happening in the latest Magic Treehouse book.  Ze would rather be silent than be wrong.  And sometimes ze would completely collapse trying to tie a shoelace on hir shoelace book, sobbing uncontrollably.  (It’s ok if you don’t know how to tie a shoe!  You’re only 3!  I couldn’t tie my shoe laces until I was 5, and we didn’t have velcro in those days.)

These tendrils of perfectionism, particularly the tantrums, are what started my reading of gifted books (I’m done now), years before we thought we’d have to dig into them.  Turns out some of the less fun aspects of gifted kids can show up before school, even if the public school doesn’t test until 3rd grade.  (And not just lack of sleep!)  There’s a lot of scientific evidence on the causes and consequences of perfectionism.  Even if gifted books don’t always help with techniques to mitigate perfectionism, most of them do note it as a side-effect, or more often as a sign of giftedness.

Naturally it’s a side-effect we want to treat, if possible.  The big thing that’s suggested is that we want to push EFFORT, not intelligence.  Gifted kids are often told how smart they are from the moment they open their bright eyes.  That means that when they make a mistake, they often take it as evidence that maybe they’re not smart.  (If you’re always right, you’re smart.  If you’re not always right, you’re not smart …  It’s not true, but it can feel true.)  This can lead to shutting down, giving up, cheating, and other negative behaviors that gifted kids don’t need to do and that can ultimately hurt them in the long run.  Carol Dweck’s Mindset book also has a chapter or two on growth mindsets for kids.

Perfectionism is especially a problem when kids are way ahead of their classes at school.  Inappropriately red-shirted kids, or gifted kids who need but are not getting accommodations are especially likely to fall prey to perfectionism.  If everything is always too easy, when confronted with something difficult, cognitive dissonance sets in and the kid shuts down.  Also when bored, trying for a perfect can be a way to create one’s own challenge.

I’ve definitely grappled with perfectionism myself, as has DH.  But I didn’t understand why DC was grappling with it in preschool.   When I was DC’s age I already believed that effort was important and I didn’t fear failure… I just knew I needed more practice… Some day I would be able to blow a gum bubble, or whistle or turn a cartwheel.  Part of that was knowing that other kids were older and had worked hard practicing before they could, and I’d be able to do what they could do some day too if I just tried hard enough.  These days there aren’t so many roving bands of mixed age kids playing outside.  So you don’t see the practice so much.  And DC doesn’t have that bucket list I had… ze’s probably never even seen a cartwheel.

So every time DC fell into a fuss or refused to do something we knew ze could do, we would explain how important practice is.  How when I was hir age, I wanted more than anything to be able to stand on one leg, and I practiced and practiced and finally I could.  We would pull out the little engine that could and read it again, hoping some day ze’d believe us.

I suspect that my mom was better at promoting that message than I am.  I will work harder at it and I will not give up.  Thus I hope DC will do the same.

update:  DC “I practiced and practiced and now I can stand on one leg, see?”

update:  The joy of erasers!  DC’s teacher drilled in that when ze makes a writing mistake, ze can just use the eraser to fix it.  This is a miracle in hir willingness to write anything down.  (Problem:  DC thinks it is hilarious to make silly mistakes on purpose. ex.  3 + 5 is M)

update:  Word World’s Sheep learned to ride a bike, falling over and over and over again.  (A realistic montage, unlike most shows where it seems like you get things on the third try.)  So did DC!

update:  After 8 weeks of lessons 4 days/week, DC can swim!

Play fight repeat has two great posts on this topic.  Paying kids to failTeaching kids persistence.

Do you or does someone you love struggle with perfectionism?  Do you have any suggestions for how to combat it?

34 Responses to “preschool perfectionism”

  1. Kellen Says:

    I always thought of my sister as the perfectionist. She is – big time. In high school, she’d throw trantrums while doing her AP bio homework. When it was my turn to take it, I cruised through and made an A- instead of her A. I made the same perfect score on the AP exam (I assume she just over studied x10).

    But I’m in my first year of work now, and get super stressed out about everything, especially when someone one tells me I’ve done something wrong – *especially* when I perceive that wrong thing to me more of a pervasive problem, like when I ask a question and then am told I need to try harder to figure things out before asking. I tend to perceive it as a flaw in my personality that makes me a bad accountant, and freaks me out.

    I think it’s crazy that DC is already throwing tantrums about not being able to do something. That sounds a lot like my sister in high school with her AP bio homework. The perfectionism resulted in her getting an A instead of my A- though, and she ended up going to Harvard Law. So, she may have been happier without the perfectionism, but it’s part of what made her do so well in undergrad that she could go to Harvard.

    So how do you lower the perfectionist’s stress about making mistakes, but at the same time keep their motivation to put in max effort (to make it perfect)?

  2. Cloud Says:

    Interesting post. We’ve seen some signs of perfectionism in Pumpkin, but not too bad- at least yet.

    Nurtureshock had some interesting thoughts about this, in the chapter about how to praise kids.

    ANd have you heard the Barenaked Ladies’ (kids) song “Eraser”? If you haven’t, you should look it up. Particularly if you have fond memories about Bohemian Rhapsody.

  3. ABDMama Says:

    Wow, this post hit home with me in many ways. I had a different form of perfectionism. Example: When I was in first grade I came home and absolutely had to learn how to spell Tchaikovsky THAT night. I was in tears about it. My mom came up with a song and complained to the teacher the next day. The teacher had written the word on the board as an example of a difficult word with many consonants. She gave students a month to learn how to spell it for extra credit. I always worked too hard for my A’s.

    My husband’s form of perfectionism was different. He was silent when he knew the answer due to peer pressure. He didn’t want to come across as an annoying know-it-all (even as a young kid he didn’t like that).

    We both liked to practice things by ourselves before we had to perform them. He never got over that and attributes perfectionism to why he can’t roller skate or do some other outside activities that require practice in front of others.

    Oh, and one way to overcome the silence is to learn to answer with smart humor. That’s what my husband does. When the class was asked what country Tagalog was spoken he answered “Togo.”. The class laughed and at the time hurt his feelings, but the teacher praised him for an educated guess. He learned he could guess, be right, or at least get a laugh for making a pun or some other logical connection.

    I think I should check out this book. I don’t yet know if I’ll need it for parenting, but it will teach me a lot about myself and my husband!

    (I apologize in advance for any imperfections on this post. I’m using an ipad and didn’t realize I can’t scroll up to edit. I almost deleted my reply, but decided that would be silly considering the topic.)

    • Kellen Says:

      I’m reading a book on introversion right now, and some of what can be termed “perfectionism” is also a typical side effect of introversion. I.E. introverts like to understand things fully before they dive in – similar to hour you and your husband like to get really familiar with something through practice before doing it in front of other people. Of course, being embarassed to practice in front of other people is probably more perfectionism ;)

      I think your husband’s teacher had exactly the right response – praise for an educated guess. It’s the little things that people remember, and I’m sure if she’d responded negatively that could have had a huge impact on him too. (Not wanting to try to answer any more questions.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It’s a good book and I’m glad you posted (and yes, the irony in not posting would have been too much to bear)! The Mindset book is the self-help version of Dweck’s research. She also has a lot of scholarly work if you’re more into that. (I was fine with the self-help version and skipped chapters because of the repetition.)

      It makes sense that it’s correlated with introversion as well.

  4. Perpetua Says:

    How common is perfectionism among 3 year olds? I ask only because I wonder if it’s something of an age-related phenomenon, like how most toddlers hate to have dirty hands and put things in order but no they are not OCD. My 3 y.o. has shown signs of incipient perfectionism, just as you describe in DC – an unwillingness to try something even when we know ze can do it.”I don’t know how!” is a not-uncommon refrain. We’re trying to model the trying – trying and not succeeding as well as trying with ultimate success. Anyway, we don’t have any other indications that ze might be gifted (although word on the refusing to sleep; ze has never been a sleeper). I mean, we think ze poops rainbows, obvs, but I always chalked the perfectionism up to some weird pre-school stage – a sudden insecurity about ability after having mastered a bazillion new skills. New self-awareness creating awareness of self-limitations as well as abilities, etc.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think some of it is normal with the 2-3 year olds. Our DC actually passed the normal stage a bit later than other kids and with more intensity than we saw in other kids. (Also, ze has a very different temperament than the kids at hir preschool who get frustrated… it wasn’t a frustrated man these shoelaces are so dumb kind of thing, which is more normal and healthy, but more internal. Ze is a bit like DH in that respect.)

      And no, you don’t have to be gifted to be a perfectionist or be a perfectionist to be gifted.

  5. BLG Says:

    I don’t think you had this option, given how smart DC is, but my parents (who were both teachers) purposely didn’t teach me my ABCs or how to read before kindergarten (no preschool where I lived). They did this so that I would be challenged when I got to school and learn the “process of learning” in that context. They knew from experience about the potential for gifted kids to get bored and disengaged in normal school (also no gifted programs where I started out). Anyway, I think it taught me how to be a hard worker, and that’s mostly what’s helped me get by in life. It was interesting when I was in elementary school – a lot of kids were much better at reading early on, since they already knew how when we started, but I eventually moved past a lot of them as things got more complex.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That is really depressing.

      My mom’s kindergarten teacher yelled at my grandma for the fact that my mom could read (she also taught herself). Same philosophy.

      The thought of someone not being allowed to read is just so so sad. There’s so much wonderful literature out there. And so much beauty in math.

      Wouldn’t a better solution to be to keep the child challenged at hir level at all points? Then ze could learn to be a hard-worker in that context, without Harrison Burgeroning it up?

      (Disclaimer: We are not pro-flashcard etc. but anti- the deliberate withholding of information.)

      • BLG Says:

        I didn’t find it depressing! Also, as a disclaimer – I wasn’t deprived of reading – both my parents read to us a lot. We also didn’t have a TV, so it wasn’t like I was just vegging out in front of it instead of reading. My parents made a convincing argument that although words are useful in structuring how we think, it’s also interesting to have a part of your life when your thinking is not defined by the written word (although it’s still defined by speaking). Developing different parts of the brain and all that.

        I don’t remember asking them to teach me to read – I had plenty of things to keep me busy, partially since we lived in the country, I suppose. They were NOT withholding information. If I were uber-gifted, I’m sure I would have learned by reading as they read aloud to me.

        Your reaction (calling my lack of reading all the way until age six depressing) is the one I usually get.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That’s because a lot of people enjoy reading.

        Though I think most kids (in the US) don’t learn to read until age 5 or 6, so that’s the modal age. [Correction: The AAP says 6 or 7]

        The way you said it the first time it sounded like they were deliberately withholding books from you. Most parents aren’t trained to teach phonics or even whole language, so most kids don’t get instruction. Given that your parents were school teachers, they probably could have, but they’re not under an obligation to do so. When you first wrote about it it sounded like a really big deal, instead of being what most kids do.

  6. LadyParticles Says:

    I was a “gifted” child too (I really dislike that word**) with a strong perfectionist streak. According to my mom, it started more or less at birth. I actually developed ulcers from stress in the 2nd grade because I switched schools and I didn’t understand how to “win” at the new curriculum. It took almost two years without orange juice to heal them (I thought that diet was some form of torture). I was a ridiculous child.

    For me, two things turned it around. The first was my 5th grade teacher. She simply sat me down, and promised me that I didn’t have to be perfect because I was already brilliant. Like you said, since correct answer == smart, incorrect answer == dumb, kids don’t always understand that failure is acceptable. I did not know that I could do great things without having to be perfect. She also told me, “It’s only 5th grade.” I had absolutely no perspective at that time. School was school, and I was Smart, so I had better WIN at it. Until she said it, It never occurred to me that an A- in 5th grade could not stop me from being an astronaut. After that conversation, I mellowed out.

    The second thing happened a few years later – I started dancing ballet. My body isn’t particularly well-designed for ballet, so any amount success required a stupendous amount of effort. I loved it, and received lots of encouragement, but I have never had to work that hard for anything. As a corollary to the effort, it also meant that I had to start prioritizing. There was not enough time to be perfect at ballet and perfect at calculus, so I was forced to step back and decide what was most important to me. Learning to prioritize my time & energy was INVALUABLE. I learned the difference between passion and natural ability (passion is so much more fun). I learned to forgive myself for mistakes, especially understanding that with more effort I could have done better. I learned to accept my own limits. Without a transmogrifier, my body was never going to take me to a professional ballet career. Once I accepted that, I enjoyed dancing even more because it was something I did for myself.

    There are other little things that happened in adulthood, too. Through experience, I’ve completely fallen in love with asking lots of (sometimes stupid) questions and exposing my ignorance. I learn best in collaborative environments, but you have to be willing to be vulnerable to reap the benefits there. I’ve seen some of my peers struggle to conceal their weak spots, but the hide-and-seek always seems to hurt them more than it protects them. Especially as a scientist, it’s hard to find answers when you can’t ask the questions.

    So basically, experience and direct communication.

    ** For the record, the reason I bristle at the word “gifted” is because that title became The Thing I Could Lose or perhaps The Thing I Must Prove, which contributed to my Captain Ahab-style pursuit for perfection. The way people used words like Gifted and Smart made these qualities sound binary – as in you either had it or you didn’t. They also always made it sound as though “Gifted” is inherently better than “Ordinary”, which is patently untrue. There are some gender things in there too (I was a little girl who loved math and science, so I was always Special in addition to Gifted and Smart) that further encouraged my social isolation and perfectionism. Anyway, I just find these labels problematic especially when applied to children who don’t really grasp the context.

    Oh, and PS – watch out for Impostor Syndrome because that’s annoyingly common too.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My sister made the same choice between ballet and [math and sciency thing that makes her a buttload of money]. We were also Special, but dealt with it in different ways.

      In graduate school, the guy in my program who did best, graduated early etc. was the one who came in with the least amount of knowledge but had absolutely zero fear of asking questions. When he graduated, I realized that if I’d asked the dumb questions as a first year, they wouldn’t have been dumb… as a fourth year they were kind of dumb too but no where near as dumb as they were going to be as a 5th or 6th year. So I needed to get over myself. I talk about that guy to my own students too.

      Almost the only PhDs I know who aren’t well aware of imposter syndrome from experiencing it at some point in their careers are those with narcissistic personality disorders … not to say it’s binary, but it sure seems like it.

  7. LadyParticles Says:

    There’s a person in my PhD program that seems to have both the narcissistic personality disorder and the imposter syndrome. Or the personality disorder is manifesting by him pretending to have IS. Either way, that guy is one high-maintenance grad student. Ugh.

    For a few years in grad school, I was the sacrificial lamb for the kids who wouldn’t ask dumb questions. They were comfortable asking me questions and then I would bring the questions up in class. It was annoying, but I earned a reputation for being motivated and inquisitive, while they were utterly forgotten by their professors. Getting past that fear of public failure is so critical if you want to pursue education past high school. I look back on grade school and high school and really wish I’d learned how to be a bit of class clown back then. It seems ridiculous, but there is some value to that particular set of skills!

  8. Debbie M Says:

    Interestingly, my perfectionism led to the taking away of my eraser. I would keep erasing and re-writing things until they were perfect, but then not finishing my work.

    I don’t actually remember any of that, but it’s all part of the family lore. I do remember moving to a school in the third grade where they had a rule that you had to use a pen for everything but math. Oh, I hated that school! (Back then there was no erasable ink, at least not available to me.) Crossed-out words look so much worse than erased words! At least they let use pencils for math!

    When erasable pens came out, I definitely used those for a while (even though there are no rules in real life except that you should write checks in something that can’t be erased). And I got an electronic typewriter when those came out. Imagine–you could erase your typing for up to three lines back!! And now with computers you can fix anything at any time! (Until you hit “Send” or “Post.”)

    Nowadays I use both pens (with nonerasable ink) and pencils. I don’t have a problem with crossing things out sometimes (though of course I still prefer it to look good as well as to be good). I don’t know when the magic changeover happened.

  9. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Almost the only PhDs I know who aren’t well aware of imposter syndrome from experiencing it at some point in their careers are those with narcissistic personality disorders … not to say it’s binary, but it sure seems like it.

    Wait. Wut?

  10. Zee Says:

    I want to make some witty comment but I am too tired. Thanks for a really interesting post though, I am still waiting for my books on gifted children to arrive.

  11. scantee Says:

    Interesting. My twin brother is by far the smartest person I know or have ever met and he has the credentials to prove it. As a child though, he was considered “slow” (I think they actually used that descriptor). His K teacher recommended to my parents to hold him back and they seriously considered doing that but didn’t because of the social implication of having twins in different grades. He had a number of problems but reading was definitely his greatest. It was just hard for him to master that skill. Once he moved from the “learning to read” stage to the “reading to learn” stage he completely took off academically. I’ve often wondered if he benefited from NOT being labeled as gifted in his early years. He didn’t have the burden of that label and internalized that hard work was what mattered.

    Like LadyParticles, I’m very wary of the term gifted. There seems to be something very culturally American and loaded about it. It doesn’t just mean very smart, it means very smart and special. It’s that special part that seems to really screw people up. I’ve known quite a few adults who were labeled gifted as children who went on to have average lives (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) and they seem pretty resentful. As if, somehow, their giftedness alone should have carried them to great heights. But smarts alone aren’t really important, are they? (Just ask most of the members of Mensa.) It’s the application of those smarts that’s important. My brother went to college with a number of Doogie Howser types and all of them were first or second generation Americans. Their upbringing was devoid of the “special” aspects of giftedness with a strong focus on hard work. My kids don’t show any signs giftedness at this point — although they could certainly take the route my brother did– but it’s a good lesson for parents of any child to focus on effort and working through difficulty rather than inherent skill.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      No, smarts are not enough… it’s how you use it. Gifted kids are at a higher risk of dropping out of school than the average kid (I read somewhere… or maybe it was that of high school dropouts there’s a higher rate of gifted kids than in the general population, something like that), especially in certain demographic groups. Part of the problem is that the US school system is set up on an age-based system which can lead to these problems… boredom, disinterest, perfectionism, low self-esteem etc. If kids are continually challenged (but not too much, according to Csikszentmihalyi), they have a greater chance of academic success.

      And yes, there’s a lot of misinformation about giftedness… people who haven’t dealt with it tend to focus on the positive aspects without even knowing about the negative aspects. That can lead to treating it exactly incorrectly… “You’re so smart” is about the worst thing a person can say.

      I tend to think of it as a syndrome… a collection of traits, some good, some bad… we treat the bad ones as best we can and try to nurture the good ones.

    • hush Says:

      Thank you for that perspective, @scantee. I’ll be reflecting upon your twin brother’s story for quite awhile. And I agree with your thoughts on the discomfort with the term “gifted” – it seems to me the gifted label is so often a correlate to high-SES/higher maternal age at birth of first child. Yes, there are exceptions. But Americans hate talking about class, so perhaps that’s part of the reason we deal in these notions of “giftedness” instead of thinking about it in terms of relative privilege.

  12. Revanche Says:

    Oh. I’m an idiot. I always thought that I wasn’t a perfectionist because I’d get upset with my parents for expecting complete perfection from me all the time (“Why an A or an A-, why not an A+?” , “Why a 1360 on your PSATs, why not higher” when I was only in middle school.)

    I thought that meant that they were the perfectionists but I had reasonable expectations for myself; I was just shy so that’s why I wouldn’t speak up in class. But I actually never spoke up in class if I didn’t have to (still don’t, still hate speaking up in meetings) because I don’t want to say anything stupid or wrong.

    Also, I’m told that I started poring over newspapers and books at age 3, I don’t *think* they deliberately taught me how to read. But I did learn how anyway, well enough that I was zipping through books several grades above my level by the time I started kindergarten. Luckily, the only thing the “Gifted and Talented Education” program meant to me was that I was supposed to work harder to be smarter because I never actually felt smarter – I was always acutely aware that other people were smarter once I got past elementary school. S’pose that’s as good a time as any to accept that part of reality and focus on working hard.

  13. Leah Says:

    I have a hard time letting go sometimes. I’ve found your blog really useful in seeking the “good enough” (your satisficing posts). I was a gifted kid, and I had a lot of the same problems with needing to know things. What has helped me, strangely, was growing up and getting into teaching, for a few reasons:

    1. growing up helped me meet new people. I was for a time in a large group of people where everyone was an “expert” in everything. (they really weren’t, but I think they all felt intimidated if someone knew something they didn’t, so they had to jump in and correct me.) Once I had some college education and confidence in my knowledge, I gave up hanging out with those folks. Love it when the English lit nerd tries to correct the knowledge of biology for me, the biologist.

    2. In teaching kids, I’ve seen these sorts of issues. I teach college bio but am moving into high school soon. I also teach a ropes course. Especially on the ropes course (and often in experiments), I try to create a framework where it is okay to fail. What do we do when we fail? We reflect, readjust, and try again. It is harder for me to follow this personally, but I am working on it. When in grad school, I knew lots of people knew more than me, and I was SO paranoid that I couldn’t answer. Not wouldn’t, but literally my brain couldn’t think through things when I was around those folks.

    3. Now that I’m all grown up, I don’t have as much time. Definitely not enough to be perfect with everything. I would love every lesson to be a beautiful pantheon to delivering biology inspiration . . . but it just won’t be. So I try to teach something interesting every time, and I always reflect and readjust wherever I see rough patches. It’s a work in progress.

    My husband and I were both gifted kids. I am pretty sure we’ll have at least one gifted child. I really appreciate your posts and reflection on this topic as a preview to considering being a good parent to a kid that might need something a little different.

  14. Sandy @ Journey To Our Home Says:

    We really enjoy Word World in our house (at least a lot more than most other educational type tv).
    Because I’m the perfectionist, I’ve been cultivating a try it attitude with my kids instead of stressing over mistakes. We practice a lot of things, and no one ever gets ‘in trouble’ for doing something wrong.

  15. On labels: A deliberately controversial post « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured Says:

    […] y’all seem interested in talking about labels, we thought we’d give you the […]

  16. Schooling update: Spring Semester « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured Says:

    […] were worried about DC’s increasing perfectionism.  DC slept very little (~7 hrs/night, no nap) and was bouncing off the walls while awake.  Ze was […]


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