Perfectionism can paralyze our children, and our response is what matters the most. Here are 3 unexpected ways to pull your kids from the struggle and move toward perfect effort instead.
Perhaps you can identify with the following scenarios, plucked from the trenches of life with gifted kids:
11 year old, with feeling: “I will NOT do my math. It’s horrible. I hate it. It takes TOO LONG and it is ABSOLUTELY DISRUPTIVE TO MY OVERALL SENSE OF PEACE! I am going to watch Building Time with Stampy and THEEEEEEENNNNN – I’m playing Minecraft. So there.”
Me, with desperation: “GAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!”
8 year old, with sass: “I’m COMPLETELY ILLITERATE!!!! Don’t you even know what that means? I can’t read. I’ll never learn to read. I’ll spend the rest of my life relying on the kindness of strangers who are willing to interpret those dumb things you call words.”
Me, with I don’t even know: “GAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!”
3 year old, with singular determination and a total lack of adult dexterity: “No mommy, don’t do it. I want to do it. I DO IT!!!!! I DOOOOOO IIIIIIIIIT!”
Me, with a vaya con dios: “Dan? Where’s that bottle of wine?”
Perfection Paralysis: Nemesis of the Gifted Brain
Several weeks ago I hit a wall. It was white, newly painted, and disguised as a blog post on a topic with which I am intimately familiar.
My professional competence imploded, its shrapnel piercing my faith. I could have written that post. Why hadn’t I written that post? I would worthless and would never be able to achieve anything close to what I had been made to accomplish.
“NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!!” the wall bellowed. My body lay battered and broken at its feet.
For three months I wallowed in the depths of writer’s block, an enormously awful fresh hell. And while it was the most excruciating emotional experience I’ve had in a very long while, it served as a blessing in disguise. Working through my own battle with fear, self-hatred, and perfectionism gave me better insight into my children’s struggles. I could see things from their point of view, and let me tell you – it was a startling vantage point.
Prior to my own existential crisis, I chose a reaction more akin to gaslighting than maternal support.
I wanted to defuse the situation, problem solve, and move forward – the exact opposite of what my kids needed at the time. But I couldn’t see this until I had my own brush with the beast that is perfection.
It looks a lot different from the inside.
Perfectionism begins with a desire to succeed, to perform to the best of your ability.
You scrutinize every step, every action, every choice. But the line you drew is crooked, or the perfect words just won’t come. The scientific resolution remains elusive and it’s entirely, absolutely your fault.
Suddenly you are lost in an obsession, your singular focus locked not on your creative energy but on your hideous flaws. The ideas, the dreams, and goals still exist, but you can’t see them through the fog.
And then paralysis moves in. You avoid. You procrastinate. You lash out at the people who love you and destroy (figuratively or literally) the things you once loved to create.
You can’t see a way out, but there is one. It’s just a little unorthodox.
3 Unexpected Ways to Pull Your Kids out of Perfectionism
My unholy experience with perfection, perseveration, and paralysis brought much-needed insight into the world my children inhabit. My kids aren’t lazy, unmotivated, or obstinate. They are industrious and sweet, loving kids. But when perfection takes hold, fear of failure consumes them. They shut down and lash out in self-preservation. As their mother, I have to help them move out of that fear.
First, I empathize
When I was locked in my battle with writer’s block, I found plenty of people willing to offer advice. Very few wanted to experience the anguish with me.
Fortunately, my husband and a good friend filled that role. Rather than offer platitudes and encouragement, they listened, reflected, and tried to understand my pain. Their empathy pulled me through the valley, and in turn, helped me do the same with my kids.
Thanks to the careful concern of those who supported me, I now have an arsenal of phrases I can use to help my children:
You have some big worries.
Your feelings have been hurt.
Your frustration level is high right now.
You feel frustrated with yourself (your teacher, your coach, etc.).
It’s hard to see a way out of this.
You’re dealing with a lot right now.
You feel disappointed.
Then, I steer into the skid
It seems counterintuitive, really, to immerse oneself in the very thing causing pain. But it’s like surviving a riptide when swimming in the ocean – you have to swim parallel to find your way out.
For my own part, I started slowly, writing vague expressions to scratch the surface of my soul. Eventually, the words came more easily and I spilled out my frustration. The wording was wieldy and awful, but I was writing – something I hadn’t been able to do for months.
For my children, I use this approach to move them out of an oppositional situation, like an impasse with a certain subject or chore. But I’ve found sometimes it’s best to lean in another direction, especially if when we have some flexibility.
One of the strongest allies of a gifted child is the rabbit hole – the all-in pursuit of a fascinating subject. When math problems devastate my oldest, I let her immerse herself in science to her heart’s content. A number of shoots grow from that singular focus, from self-directed writing assignments to math skills and more. When we lean into subjects about which she has passions, she’s more likely to give other, more frustrating subjects a try.
Finally, I keep concrete reminders of successes.
We don’t obsess over them – we just keep them on display. If the event or accomplishment comes up in conversation, I try to stay focused on the process and not the end result. My hope is that our children will begin to see perfect effort as something distinct from perfection itself, then adopt the former as the rule.
While I would have preferred not to have such a drastic run-in with perfectionism, I’m ultimately glad that I did.
The wall taught me how to be a better mom to my children when they have their own collisions, and I think that’s what we needed in the end.