Tuesday, December 12, 2006


How do you avoid passing along your perfectionistic tendencies to your children? My brother and I are both high-acheiving perfectionists. We always have been, and sadly, I think probably always will be. I've reflected on the types of parenting my mom and dad gave us, and honestly, I don't think they were sending us messages that mistakes were bad or that love was conditional. I also don't think my brother and sister in law are sending my neice and nephew those messages.

Over Thanksgiving, my nephew--now in kindergarten--showed us his sight words. He had had the same list since the first day of school, and knew every single one of them. However, he was scared that he would make a mistake reading to the teacher, and had therefore refused to "take the test" to get new ones. My mom and I both encouraged my brother and sister in law to "make" him take the test, and watched them play with nephew and the words. Neither one of them was doing anything that made us think perfection was expected or that making a mistake or taking a risk was bad. Since we are both special education teachers, we know something about encouraging kids to try new things, modeling appropriate self-talk and reducing anxiety.

My dad and stepmother babysat for them on Friday and told me that nephew has new words, so obviously he did end up taking, and "passing" the test. They also told us that while babysitting, he was once again scared to read words he didn't know perfectly. He had 25 words, and read 19 of them perfectly, and refused to even say anything for the other 6. They also relayed the story that he had misplaced the key to his coin bank. He freaked out. Freaked. Out. As they told the story, I realized his reaction is exactly what I do whenever I misplace something, miss a deadline, forget to do something or in any other way show that I am not perfect and in control.

Sunday I left the Education School computer lab in tears. I had just finished my stats take home, and was convinced I had failed it. I told Dyke Two that I was OK with taking the class again in the spring. Yesterday, I ran into the professor who told me he had just graded my exam, and I got a 94.

Seriously, I am almost in tears thinking that there is something we are doing to pass this perfectionism on to Bigfella. I hate to think that he might ever put the type of pressure on himself that I put on myself. Even with our intentional efforts to keep my neice and nephew free of this plague, they are showing they have it.

How do we stop this before it gets worse? I have spent years in therapy, and taken 7 different medications to manage my anxiety and depression (and the perfectionism they stem from). Not only do I want better for myself, I want better for the children I love.


At 4:06 PM, Anonymous jenny said...

Honestly, I think this perfectionist trait is genetic. I am exactly the same way, and my parents are ANYTHING but perfectionists and did not ever expect us to never screw up and make a mistake. I think we are wired this way. It bites. It makes things harder, and our culture just feeds into it so much. But if you figure something out, let me know so I can use in on my kids too!

At 9:39 PM, Blogger megan said...

i'm not trying to be snarky here, really....but sadly, i'd say one alternative is depression and self-loathing. at least that's how i have dealt with letting go of perfectionist tendancies.

i'm not saying it's either/or, but dealing with giving up perfectionism once you seem to be achieving it is its own ball of stress. i know you know this, and i don't have any sage advice or insight....but just wanted to share the other side.

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Jody said...

One of our kids has this tendency, too -- she's deeply fearful of mistakes. Almost panicked about it.

So, practically, what to do? Especially because it looks to be at least in part a tempermental, genetic trait?

Make sure she gets involved in team sports run by thoughtful coaches, so she can experience body mastery (as opposed to mind mastery -- because it will engage different parts of her brain), and see people making mistakes, and see herself making mistakes, and learn in another, possibly less brain-stressed envivonment, that mistakes are okay.

Tell stories about people who make mistakes and overcome them, or work around them.

Immerse her in nature -- for its soothing qualities as well as its challenges to human concepts of perfection -- and require her to do chores and volunteer work, so she learns that mastery doesn't equal perfection and that giving of yourself is as important as any other value.

Provide access to arts and crafts -- because there is no perfect product, and because it (again) engages different parts of the brain.

Academically, emphasize again and again, in as many different ways as possible, that the process is as important, or more important, than the product.

I know we're going to struggle with these issues in our children, because it's part of their genetic heritage and their environment. In fairness to my daughter (and maybe your nephew), the fear of failure, of not measuring up, of not being good enough, seems especailly profound in kindergarten. I'd like to believe that the language we use and the examples we give to our kids during this key transition point will help them transform how they feel about learning new skills.

I'd like my daughter to love trying new things, even new things she won't ever master. It's taking me all my life to learn that skill, myself.

(I did a quick Amazon search and the two relevant books that come up immeidately seem to be Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism and When Perfect isn't Good Enough: Strategies for Coping With Perfectionism.


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