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 fail. Teaching kids persistence.
Do you or does someone you love struggle with perfectionism? Do you have any suggestions for how to combat it?