Perfectionism

A bright child is truly a gift from God, however, the characteristics of a gifted child are not always pleasant and one of the more unpleasant ones is perfectionism. This is the trait that forces your little Mike to correct everyone. This is the characteristic that may cause Mary to copy an assignment over and over until it is “right”. Another perfectionist may not try to write a creative story, saying “I don’t know what to write.” or simply “I can’t”.

Children who never attempt something for fear of failure are perfectionists, too. This is the essence of perfectionism — trying to get the world, or a piece of it, to conform to a picture of the “way it should be”.  A perfectionist individual will try to correct a problem whether it means writing a paper over one more time, correcting Mom’s memory of an event, or refusing to write a story if he is doomed to failure anyway. These look like very unpleasant characteristics.

However, perfectionism in a healthy adult who has learned to deal with the trait looks very different. This perfectionist is able to accept mistakes especially when he can learn from them, is able to be a good sport, is able to forgive and to be forgiven, and, most especially— is able to accomplish great things because of his (or her) persistence and desire to “get things right”.  Add a sense of fairplay and justice, and this person can accomplish wonderful things. The trick for parents is to train the child to that point, so let us go back to the more unpleasant aspects of perfectionism.

What about the child who constantly corrects others? While most adults know that you don’t win friends by correcting them, a child will have to be taught this. Parents should analyze the cause. Does the child simply want to set the record straight, or is he deliberately trying to be obnoxious? Although it can seem like the latter, the gifted child is not doing this for fun, or because of a heart attitude, but because he feels that he must. At times this sense of rightness is so strong that the child may take years to learn the simple concept of dealing with people, and may have social problems because of it. The child has a sense of rightness, not a sense of self-righteousness.  Perfectionism is normal for a gifted child.  Perfectionism, with training and tempering, can become a great characteristic in an adult.

What about arguing to prove a point? This problem also starts in perfectionism, as it is normal for the child who corrects people constantly to also be an arguer. A mom may find herself arguing with a five-year-old over something unbelievably inconsequential. As before, this may take a long time to deal with, but the rewards are great. I suggest two things: first, determine the true cause, and then secondly, work out a method, or a ritual, for getting the child to stop and think about his actions.  One ritual might be to silently, hold up a hand, palm outward, in the universal “stop” sign. After you teach him that this means to be silent, you can then shoo him on to another topic or action.   (All done silently). The ritual also helps the mom to distance herself from the argument.

What about dealing with a mistake? Two characteristics of all people, including gifted children, are the fears of making a mistake and admitting a mistake. For a perfectionist to say, “I am sorry”, he must admit having made a mistake, a difficult thing. We have all met adults with whom relationships are difficult because of this attitude problem. So, the gifted child must learn how to make mistakes, that all humans do, and that he must go on with the job. For a child, this means learning to accept not-quite perfect papers, but for an adult, it means being able to apologize, being able to forgive himself, and being able to accept forgiveness from others, even God.  This, too, can be trained.

What about refusing to do an assignment? This young perfectionist has a totally different problem: being willing to give up in the face of non-perfection. This child needs understanding and to be taught how to do a reasonably good job, not perfect but good. An assignment broken into many smaller parts is easier to contemplate. He may need help organizing himself, his work, or his time. He may need someone to take a dictated story.  Many very young gifted children can imagine a great story, but cannot write well enough or fast enough to get it on paper. Give these children a little help because they need to be trained not to give up and that is more important than one paper.   This training must be done one step at a time.

On the other hand, what about the parents?   Is Mom or Dad a perfectionist?  Does she make the children do every math problem on every page until perfect?  Does she make the children rewrite everything?   Does Dad expect perfect work, chores done without reminders, and the food on the table at 5:30 sharp?   If so, lighten up!  It is time to expect a good job, not perfection.  It is time to allow mistakes— time to teach forgiveness.   After all, we are all very human.  You really can skip a chapter or some problems.   You should move on if your child understands the material, especially if he has already mastered it.

Perfectionism is a common characteristic of gifted people, but living with it can be very frustrating. Train your children to accept failures, learn from mistakes, to be good sports, and how to tackle difficult assignments. Above all, teach them to accept their own humanity and others’ imperfections, and to ask for and accept forgiveness.

Leave a comment about your strategies for working with your perfectionist child!

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