“My kid is a perfectionist,” is something I hear parents say a lot these days. As a parent of one myself, I know how good it feels to brag. But as an educator, I admit that I worry as much about V‘s education as I do my energetic son’s (for whom sitting down to focus can be a challenge). More so, in fact, because of how much more easily the first problem, perfectionism, goes unnoticed.
In the four years that V attended public school she earned all the usual accolades: straight A’s, student of the month, student council (when did that become a thing in elementary school?), spelling bee awards, etc. She was accustomed to succeeding often, and without much effort. It wasn’t until I started homeschooling that I saw the implications of this: presented with an actual challenge, she unraveled. She was, as a friend put it, “a textbook perfectionist“. That is to say she is:
- A natural leader
- Uncomfortable with change
- And someone who prefers flight over fight
This got me to thinking: J may not be a perfectionist, but he is a gifted athlete. Yet never once did we assume that because of his affinity for sports that he could succeed without coaching. The idea of being a perfectionist has so many positive connotations, for children especially, that it tricked us into thinking that our daughter wouldn’t need constant coaching herself. But the truth is, if her education was coming too easily, it’s because she wasn’t being challenged. And what is education if not the study of how to overcome challenges?
Breaking the cycle
To avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism, we compiled the following reminders:
- Learning isn’t about getting the answers right, it’s about being challenged and learning how to overcome said challenge.
- Along those lines, mistakes should never be feared, they should be expected. My son knows he’s not always going to knock the ball out of the park. But because it’s assumed, it’s never a crushing disappointment when it doesn’t happen.
- As parents we have to change our tune: instead of “You’re so smart“, we prefer “I noticed you worked really hard on that“. Again, if my son has a bad day on the field, he isn’t beating himself up for not being athletic enough, he simply knows it’s time to hit the batting cage.
It’s terribly easy to be proud parents. The real challenge is in accepting that sometimes our kids need a little more than empty accolades to make them better students, and in turn, better people.