5 tips for helping your perfectionist child

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 4-year-old daughter, Viva, who would rather not try than fail.

Viva brought me an amazing drawing the other day; it was Professor Foster and I in the kitchen, with Viva lying in bed. I hung it on the refrigerator and thought all was well, until Viva returned because she’d forgot to put her name on it. I knew this wouldn’t end well, even though the painting seemed to be a lovely fait accompli. As Viva signed the drawing, she muffed the “A” in her name and all hell broke loose. The next thing I knew I had a crumpled drawing, a crying child and a barren refrigerator.

Viva, as it turns out, is a perfectionist. She is prone to meltdowns over mistakes and more likely not to try than to risk failure. I don’t knew where she gets it because “failure” is my middle name. (Which was really cruel of my parents. It sure set me up for … well, it’s right there in the name.) But lately it has meant fewer drawings, less writing, painful wardrobe processes and a lot of tears.

Many children are perfectionists, and it isn’t always a happy way to be. Perfectionism leads to anxiety (or the other way around), meltdowns and unhappiness all around. What’s a perfectly flawed parent to do?

Curb your own perfectionist tendencies

When something is problematic with our child, the first place to look is always our own monstrous behavior. Chances are, your child sees you react poorly to adversity and mistakes. Are you snapping pencils while fretting over spreadsheets? Throwing your crooked ship in a bottle project across the room? Staring at your love handles in the mirror and loudly proclaim how you’ll never be the man you hoped to be? (Or maybe your wife is proclaiming it of you …) It’s that kind of behavior that made your kid this way.

Don’t worry that your gnocchi won’t float! The next time your clay sculpture looks misshapen, just say, “The girl in the “Hello” video made a bad bust of Lionel Richie and he still loved her!” And when you explode your back into a fine red mist while working out at the CrossFit gym, say, “That’s all right, I was only trying to clean 600 pounds for fun and personal best, and I’m perfectly content to have rod in my spine from now on.”

Teach them to love the process

Your perfectionist child wants an ideal product, but isn’t it the getting there that’s all the fun? Isn’t the journey why we’re here? Isn’t Jonathan the Livingest Seagull? You need more new age peacenik mottos in your house.

Whether you truly believe that “nobody is perfect” and “As long as you had a good time, it doesn’t matter how it turned out,” or whether those words get caught in your throat, you need to make your child believe it. Perhaps paint folksy aphorisms about low expectations in curly letters on frames around the house.

Praise, praise, praise

Your child’s drawing of Iron Man looks more like Morton Downey, Jr. than Robert Downey, Jr.? Don’t frown or wrinkle your nose and give a qualified response. Point out specific, small victories– such as the excellent use of color on the repulsor rays and the fascinating balance of positive and negative space. Surely the drawing isn’t 100 percent terrible. Even a blind sculptor makes a Lionel Richie sometimes.

Teach them not to “catastrophize”

Perfectionist kids see the worst case scenario every time: “If my outfit isn’t quite right, the other kids will throw me bodily out of circle time.” “If I don’t read this book fluently, the only college I’ll get to will be an online-for-profit that also sells mail order steaks.” “If my drawing is imperfect, my children will sell me to a French-Canadian circus that will make me do flips dressed like a character from a passe James Cameron movie.”

Show them that “goof ups” are a normal part of life. Tell them that Thomas Edison failed one million times before he finally electrocuted an elephant, that Abraham Lincoln lost several elections before finally successfully presiding over the bloodiest period in American history and that Sylvester Stallone made “Rocky V” before he made “Rocky VI.”

Help them set priorities

A perfectionist child wants to give 100 percent to everything they do. No one can do that, except androids, which invariably malfunction and try to kill their masters. (Don’t tell your child that part. I did and now we’ll never have a robot butler.)

Show your child that you barely give 40 percent to anything in your life, and you’re relatively successful and intermittently content. Decide what in their day needs focus and energy, and what is merely a lark. I, for instance, am giving this blog at least 90 percent right now, but the bacon that’s on fire in the oven right now is barely even getting that other 10 percent. Oh, hang on, I have to put out a grease fire …

… I’m back. I didn’t put out that fire perfectly, but the house didn’t burn down … and that’s enough.

Being a perfectionist can lead to increased anxiety and problems in school later on, so it’s best to nip your child’s painful tendencies in the bud now. If you don’t, you’ll be an imperfect parent and no one will visit you in the home. So get on it!

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