Ask the grumpies: When did perfectionism start?

Chelsea asked:

I was wondering when you began to notice DC #1 struggling with perfectionism – like how old ze was and how it manifested. I have a bright 3 year old who gets so incredibly upset if any little thing is not “right” – food, toys, clothes, the order things are done in, etc. But maybe that’s totally normal 3-year-old “threenager” behavior…

Honestly?  DC1 has ALWAYS been a bit of a perfectionist.  Like at 3 months zie crawled a little bit but hated it so much and it was so hard that zie refused tummy time angrily unless it was on daddy’s tummy after (crawling did not happen until much later, and then it happened perfectly and almost instantaneously).  I mean everything has been like that with DC1, something phenomenal happens but happens poorly and then months pass without it happening again and then suddenly DC1 is doing it perfectly without any apparent struggle.

DC2 isn’t like that.  We see DC2 learning and growing. The process isn’t hidden from us.

But, DC2 is also 3 and is totally being a “threenager” as you say.  With the everything needing to be the way it’s ‘sposed to be or zie lectures us about things being ‘propriate like one of hir preschool teachers must do.  3 year olds are just OCD by nature.  I would not worry about that kind of perfectionism at all.  Most likely you’ll be telling hir to clean up thoughtless messes and reminding about putting underwear on before the pants again in no time.

Note also that you can use this (temporary) rigid adherence to structure to your advantage by say, instituting bedtime routines and asking, “What comes next?”  DC1 also responded well to the tyranny of the clock at this age, “It is 3pm, time to go!” we would say.

And we’re also seeing DC2 getting the other kind of perfectionism where zie doesn’t like us to see hir struggle with learning (for example, zie will refuse to sound words out when zie hits a hard word and sometimes says zie hates books rather than read with us).  We suspect zie is picking it up at daycare.  DC1’s perfectionism has waxed and waned– a lot seems to have to do with specific teachers at preschool and school, but we’re not sure what they’re doing wrong or right.

Perfectionism does seem to increase when the work they’re doing at school is too easy.  When they don’t get challenges.  When they’re praised for being smart and not encouraged to make mistakes during the learning process.

But if it’s just fussiness about things being in the “right” order… DC1 grew out of that too soon and really I think DC2 has just recently grown out of that, like in the past week (in fact, DH and DC2 are currently having a conversation about DC2 not ‘preciating DH stepping on hir stuff that was lying in the hallway and DH not appreciating hir leaving things on the floor in the hallway to be stepped on).  (Update:  I take it back, DC2 is still a rules-monger.)

Age 4-6 are LOVELY, and then age 7 is kind of obnoxious (or so has been our experience and so I have been told by others).  We’re enjoying 8 and 9!

Good luck and don’t worry too much about threes.  Here’s some more tips (do read the comments in that linked post as they’ve got a lot of great suggestions as well).

10 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: When did perfectionism start?”

  1. Catwoman73 Says:

    Oh no… please don’t tell me that 7 is obnoxious! My daughter is 6 going on 16. I can’t imagine it getting more challenging.

  2. crazy grad mama Says:

    I’ve seen signs of perfectionism in Little Boy (now 18 months) for at least a year. He gets frustrated and gives up easily when things don’t work the way he wants (like trying to fit a block into the wrong-shaped hole). He’s also got the usual 18-month-old obnoxiousness, in that he can mostly communicate what he wants, but what he wants isn’t always going to happen (no, you can’t eat only raisin bread every day), and that makes him mad.

  3. Dana Says:

    My three year old doesn’t generally insist things be done a certain way at home, but he won’t draw letters or people for us because he can’t do them perfectly (as good as mom or dad). I’ve seen that he does them at school, but he won’t do them for us and I think perfectionism is the issue. He’s also bright and I’m hoping to avoid excessive perfectionism!

  4. First Gen American Says:

    I think I have one of each. The older is a perfectionist. The younger one is the polar opposite. The older one is horrible at everything until he’s not. The younger one is the “best” at everything even if he’s horrible. “Mom…did you see me, I am the best soccer player”. He seems blissfully ignorant of his deficiencies. It makes trying to parent them equally and fairly very hard. Telling them both they need to practice to get better usually is interpreted very differently.

  5. Chelsea Says:

    Thanks for the answer and for the link to the other post. We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of using phrasing from daycare/preschool – I don’t know why I haven’t thought to ask what they say in situations we’ve been having trouble with. And it’s always good to be reminded that humor is so helpful. Yesterday DS wouldn’t go potty for me, but he would go for his tub toy whale.

    With my DS the issue is not about fear of not living up to other people’s expectations – he is NOT a rule follower, at least not at home and I’m pretty sure not at school either – or about not wanting to try things if he’s afraid he’s not going to do them “right”, it’s that he’s got an internal standard for what is “right” and woe be it to other people/things if they do not live up to that standard. His default for everything since he was a baby is that it is “wrong”. He must wear what he wants to wear. He must eat what he wants to eat. And for the most part that’s okay, but sometimes what he wants to wear is dirty or the bowl he wants to use is in the dishwasher or he needs to eat a bite of great grandma’s bean stew because that’s the polite thing to do. There’s no “choose A or B”. It is only C. He also develops these very elaborate stories that he wants his cars and trains to act out, and they don’t always obey the laws of physics, and there’s nothing that can be said (at least that I know) that make the situation better. I guess I’m just venting a bit. It sounds like his behavior is very much a normal 3-year-old phase. The only thing that truly concerns me (and I’m being a bit facetious here) is that my MIL is exactly the same way. She is RIGHT and everyone/everything else is WRONG. She and DS can really get into it…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, it does sound like your DS is a bit intense, but it is a totally normal phase. We’re really into choosing our battles as parents– we only say “no” about things that are important (safety, hassle, etc.). If DC1 wanted to wear stripes and plaid, no problem (DC2 has better fashion sense). There’s a ton of other stuff like that that DC1 probably would have kicked up a fuss about that we just never fought those battles and now DC1 is a pretty easy-going 9 year old.

      And honestly, adults who never grow out of a strong belief that they’re right tend to go pretty far in life even if they’re not always right. (Though they’re irritating to be around if they’re not always right. Several of the women in my extended family, otoh, believe they’re always right but they’re right about that, which just makes them the decider and not annoying at all.)

  6. Chelsea Says:

    It’s good to hear that things get easier with time (or at least old things go away and new things replace them). And I should say that DS (and MIL) are wonderful in 1 million other ways. The question and comment probably reflect my own insecurity as a mom and DIL more than anything really “wrong” with either of them.

    I thought of one other ask the grumpies question. The person who had the “ethical 401k” question made me think of this. I remember awhile back Laura Vanderkam had a commentary about some click bait article about “wife bonuses” where super rich Manhattan venture capitalists were paying their stay at home wives “wife bonuses” for doing whatever. LV’s take was it was terrible that the wives, who could have been raking in the big bucks on their own, were not working and having their own financial security. So my question is this: As a society, are we better off if 1% families get even richer if both spouses work (say both are able to bring in a 1% salary) or, as a society, are we better off if the second spouse doesn’t work? I’m definitely not taking about the non 1% families where both spouses work and I’m not really even talking about what might be best for the second spouse in the 1% family but, as a society where income inequality is a real problem, is it better if there’s only 1 earner in a 1% household?


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