Your Messy Kid Could Be a Perfectionist

Perfectionism, like so many things, doesn’t always look the way we expect it to.

Sometimes, perfectionism looks like someone spending hours and hours laboring over draft after draft, making sure everything is just exactly so, but for some, especially those who deal with executive function difficulties, it may look exactly the opposite.

It may look like scribbling, because he knows no matter how hard he tries he won’t get it completely within the lines, so it’s easier to not try in the first place than to spend time and effort and then be disappointed.

It may look like tearing a tiny rip in a book accidentally and then going on to rip the whole page because she doesn’t know how to handle the emotion of seeing her precious book damaged.

It may look like refusal to participate, whether in a creative activity or a game, because of fear of failure or mistakes.

It may look like spending way too much time on a specific detail and then not having time for the rest of the project, therefore sabotaging the whole thing in the process and making it look like she gave up when, in fact, she just ran out of time.

Boy painting watercolors

It may look like using too much water in a watercolor, getting a small rip, and then stopping painting to instead focus on enlarging that hole until the picture isn’t able to be salvaged.

Perfectionism is a dangerous beast, because the intention – doing something well – is a trait to be admired. We praise attention to detail. We praise careful execution. When we fail to recognize the motivation behind our kids’ (or our own) struggles, we approach them with the wrong attitude.

Perfectionism is a Mindset, not a Result.

Sometimes we look at sloppy work and think, this person couldn’t be a perfectionist, when in fact, that very perfectionism may be preventing them from trying harder, because they know no matter how hard they try it won’t match the ideal standard in their minds. It may be causing them to destroy their work because it doesn’t match their self-imposed expectations and they can’t handle that frustration of not measuring up.

When We Recognize Their Self-imposed Expectations, We Stop Applying External Pressure.

This, more than anything else, is a gift we can give to the perfectionists in our lives. When they’re already putting tremendous pressure on themselves, and then we heap more on top, we stop being an encouragement and become a burden. We stop building them up and instead add to their already intense anxiety and stress.

If at all possible, we need to help our perfectionists recognize that

  • mistakes are part of life
  • failure is normal
  • and  the only way to improve is to work through the messy phase of trial and error.

So … how do we do that?

  1. We point out (and normalize) our own mistakes. I even have an “everybody makes mistakes” song that I made up and sing… frequently… when things happen. It creates an atmosphere of acceptance and that everyone, parents included, have off days and moments. Daniel Tiger has a song, too – “it’s okay to make mistakes / try to fix them and learn from them too”. I love Daniel Tiger.
  2. We give them space to be imperfect and not measure up to society’s expectations when it’s not really necessary. My kids don’t always match. They often wear mis-matched socks or colors that clash. They turn in work at various venues that isn’t perfect, but it’s authentic. It’s them. And they’re owning it.
  3. We make sure that our relationships with them and others, especially family members, are unconditional, not based on external behavior or other measures.
  4. We provide lots of resources that normalize other people’s mistakes and imperfections so they know they’re not alone in this whole thing.

and all the other Who Was biographies about scientists and inventors

We give them space to be kids, celebrate they don’t have to be as good as, as smart as, as _______ as the kid next door in order to have value.

We teach them ways to cope when they’re frustrated or overwhelmed in a situation and how to verbalize what they’re feeling, and we let them know that they are loved for who they are, no matter what.

This post has been part of a Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop for November 2018 about Perfectionism. Click on through to read some other perspectives from people who have been there, done that.

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