My daughter, Nicole, is a perfectionist.
Sometimes this can be a good thing. She sets goals for herself and sticks to them absolutely. She has not eaten candy for the last four months, for example, because one day she decided it was not healthy.
Her goals are sometimes absurd and extreme such as this week when she informed us that she was going to practice not scratching when she has an itch so that if she ever gets Chickenpox she will be able to handle it. What 5-year-old does that?
But her desire to be “perfect” also has a downside. She doesn’t like to try new things unless she knows she will be good at them. She constantly needs reassurance that she is doing things “right” or “perfectly.” I’ve even heard her tell her 2-year-old sister that she isn’t drawing perfectly when the little one is scribbling like a maniac on the wall.
For a long time, I thought the answer was feeding her sense of self-esteem. I would tell her how great she was and give her the praise I know she so desperately wanted.
But my husband and I talked about it and decided I was actually fueling the perfectionism. Instead of blanket praise, I should be guiding her to seeing the enjoyment or the process of what she’s doing rather than the goal of being the best.
An article in Parenting magazine helped me realize this when it talked about not giving false praise. Not every picture is going to be beautiful. Not every attempt at jump rope is amazing. So why falsely tell a child it is?
Children who are constantly told they are the best often have trouble accepting that something could be difficult for them, so they give up.
Stephanie Rosales, a licensed educational psychologist in La Quinta, CA, says in the article: “Children who are praised for solving a problem tend to be more motivated in school than children who are told they’re smart. The latter, ironically, often become frustrated when something doesn’t come easily.”
So instead of saying “you’re smart” or “that’s wonderful” or “you did that perfectly,” I am know trying to say things like “I’m proud of how you stuck with that” or “It seems like you’re really enjoying yourself” or “That was an interesting solution to that problem.”
I am also asking more questions in the hopes my daughter will find her own sense of value and accomplishment outside of parental praise. For example, I ask her why she chose to use certain colors in her drawing or what was her favorite part of learning to ride a bike.
It’s difficult to avoid value words like “great” and “wonderful,” but I think I’m on the right track. It was awkward at the pool this week, though, when all the other moms were saying “Great job, honey!” and I was saying, “What’s the hardest part of the backstroke? I’m proud of you for working so hard.” I admit I may have snuck in some “good jobs” in there at some point.
What can I say? I’m not perfect.
Have you dealt with children who need praise and seek to be perfect? How do you help them relax and enjoy life?