Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Perfection and Perserverance

BubTar is a perfectionist. I'm sure in some situations the drive for perfection is an asset, but at age five, it is a hinderance of immense proportions. The drive to do things right is robbing him of experiences and enjoyment.

He cannot draw, because his pictures never turn out like the images in his mind. This leads to crumpled papers dampened with tears and a child sobbing into my shoulder.

He cannot play with blocks or other building materials, because he feels compelled to make things just like the diagrams and he can't follow the directions just yet. He does not allow himself the freedom to use his imagination to put them together in fun and creative ways. There is one correct way to build and if it cannot be accomplished all is lost. This leads to blocks dumped on the floor, with a small child sobbing in the midst of them.

He cannot practice writing his letters, because if he allows his pencil to leave the dotted lines, even for a split second, he has failed. "I can't DO it. It is RUINED." and he puts his head on the table and cries.

He cannot complete mazes, because one wrong turn is the end of the world. "But I already went the wrong way! It's ruined now! See? See the mark? I went the WRONG WAY!" He shoves the book away and cries, "I just CAN'T DO IT!"

But he can. He can do all of these things and more. He does them amazingly well for his age, he just can't do them to his own satisfaction. He needs to do it the right way, and there is only one right way that is acceptable to him.

In the beginning, I'd let him walk away. I'd say, "If it upsets you this much, you need to take a break from it. Go cool down." But that became his pattern. He would make a small mistake, explode from his huge failure, and then walk away. He became a quitter. As soon as he made a mistake, the tears and outrage came, followed by defeat. I allowed it to happen. I facilitated it even.

Now that he is home for the summer, I've noticed the pattern much more often. Almost everything he attempts is met with tears and frustration. I am trying to teach him to push through and that doing his best is all he can do, but it is a difficult lesson. Now instead of letting him walk away, I give him a good long hug and let him cry on my shoulder before asking him to calm himself and try again. I reinforce that it doesn't matter if it is perfect, it matters that he tries his best and completes what he is attempting. At the same time I wonder if this solution is any better.

As children grow, you begin to realize that the issues that you are dealing with at any particular moment are not isolated. The behaviors I encourage or redirect at this point in his life will stay with him. He is beginning to grow into himself and it is my job to help guide him in that. In this moment, all I want is a happy child who is able to play freely and creatively, who is not burdened by his own expectations of greatness. He is only five. I don't want to squelch his drive, but I want to teach him that things don't always come out perfectly and that is okay. We all do our best and that is what is important. Sometimes our imagined best and our actual best are not the same, but it doesn't mean we should stop trying to make it there. I want his perfectionism to challenge him to keep trying, not to upset him so much he stops trying altogether. I'd like for his perfectionism to lead him to perseverance, not make them two warring factions in which he has to choose a side.

Can anyone tell me why this passion for perfection does not transfer into the cleanliness of his bedroom? ;)


Kristin said...

You are so very profound, Kyla. It's so hard being a parent sometimes. I think you're doing the right thing now and I think you were doing the right thing then, too. It's crazy how our goals for our children change, huh?

I was quite a young perfectionist too. Sounds a lot like Bub. My parents must've done what you're doing because I've relaxed my ways a lot. And my room was always messy too. But not now.

S said...

I've got one of those too, and I fear that it's a lifelong trait. Sure, you can tweak it a little, but I'm guessing it's not going to go away.

That may sound cynical, but it's also the tiniest bit freeing (in that it might reduce the mommyguilt), no?

motherbumper said...

He is so driven (and smart like his mom). It's amazing that he has such high standards (for himself) at such a young age but I think you are dealing with it "correctly" (like there is a right and wrong - pfft).

Parenting is so hard and Kyla, you are so insightful, so in touch with your children that I think BubTar will learn to relax without losing his amazing focus.

Your last line slayed me - trust me, it will never translate to a clean room (I had a brother ;).

Beck said...

He sounds just like my friend Bonnie's oldest son who, at 9, has found a way to use that super-focused perfectionism in a way that doesn't hurt himself.

Bea said...

I think it does help, all that talk about trying your best - even if it doesn't seem to be.

I keenly remember that childhood perfectionism - the wail of agony when I messed up a number I was writing, and then the relief when my dad showed me how a 7 could be transformed into a very creditable-looking 9.

Anonymous said...

Donnie has the exact same trait. It is actually one of the reasons we are letting him repeat kindergarten. I really hope that the second time around he will find it easier, and hopefully not expect everything to be perfect and then give up when it isn't. I don't think you will ever have to make the "repeating" decision with Bub, mind you.

Your last comment? Hee. It is a mother's dream.

OhTheJoys said...

You really are a thoughtful parent. I think I come here to learn from you, friend.

Anonymous said...

My niece was exactly that way, and is a much more relaxed twelve year old.

My Rachel is has the opposite problem, she is OVER-confident, and praises herself.

Girlplustwo said...

oh, his precious heart, friend. and yours, too. cheering him on.

you are so WISE. dude.

Em said...

Bubtar sounds so much like my son (who is 7 and gifted). He was a perfectionist even at age 2 - when he would work on doing things over and over again until he got them absolutely right. He wouldn't draw until he was 4.5 years because his drawings weren't perfect.

We've always encouraged him to have a go but we've never pressured him unduly - because eventually he has come around. As he has got older he is more willing to have a go but he does still shy away from things that he can't do perfectly straight away. He has learnt that people have different strengths and weaknesses - and just because most things come to him easily, there are still some things he needs to work at... and that is okay.... he's learnt that the effort put in is the most important thing... we take this approach because his sister has special needs and we want him to be able to acknowledge the effort she puts into things that he finds easy... Anyway, I think you are doing a wonderful job... encouraging him, telling him not to be too hard on himself... I'm sure as he gets older he will learn to let up a little bit :)

Christine said...

Kyla, just reading this made me think about just how great a mother you are. you are so perceptive and concerned. And BubTar will likely learn, with your wise guidance, how to handle his perfectionism. With you on his side he is bound to be just fine.

Julie Pippert said...

I have a five year old perfectionist too. I suppose the apple does not fall far from the tree.

I don't figure I can eradicate it, so I just do my best to help her learn how to get along with it.

We do a lot of talking and exercises.

We talk about practice. I show myself making mistakes and model how I handle it. We talk about how you can fix things. And I am oh so careful to never expect too much. Usually.

You explain this all so very well.

NotSoSage said...

Kyla, this was amazing. What an insightful comment on BubTar and the challenges he's facing.

I was like this as a kid. If something didn't come really easily to me, I dropped it. I still see that in myself from time to time, but I'm trying to push through that more. It's not simple.

I am amazed at how you parent with such thoughtful purpose.

~aj~ said...

Kyla, you are such a wise mother! I'm so impressed at the way you are handling BubTar and his frustrations over his imperfections. I'm sure in time, he will learn to handle it differently, although he may always be an over-achiever and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I love his sweet spirit.