How To Correct a Perfectionist Child
My post How to Help a Perfectionist Child on Medium.com struck a chord! Comments and questions poured in on my colleague Rachel Macy Stafford's Hands Free Revolution page after she shared it with her readers.
With Rachel's permission, I'm answering the most popular question here. To the mother who asked the question, thank you for inspiring this post! (If you would like me to include your name, please let me know.)
Thank you! Just went through this with my 5 year old daughter the other day! She cried for about half an hour and was totally distraught when I pointed out a little mistake on her computer lab work she brought home.
I meant it to be funny "Wow you typed the whole alphabet. Great job! Look you have a J instead of an L! Did your brain get confused?" She was so sad that she didn't do it perfectly.
Am I not to point out errors? What would be a better way to address them? I don't want her quest to be perfect mean that I can't help her when she makes mistakes.
Thank you for bringing that up. Addressing corrections is the next logical step in learning how to help a perfectionist child.
When I read your question, I saw an interesting parallel in your reaction and your daughter's. In her case, she wanted to get her letters right, and thought she had until you told her otherwise. And in yours, you wanted to get your response right, and thought you had until her reaction told you otherwise. Disappointing surprises like that are never easy to take, especially when you put thought or effort into the process, as you both did.
This parallel shows you know how she feels.
You can draw on your natural empathy to guide your future interactions with her. So see how you feel about this kind of response to her instead, noting the similarities to what you tried, and the differences.
SAY WHAT YOU SEE: "Looks like you are pleased with your paper. You typed the whole alphabet! Look at all those letters all in order. (Point to a few.) You know how they go!"
CAN DO: "It might have been hard to find some of those keys on the keyboard. (You can) show me the hardest ones."
If she engages and tells you more, she will be reliving her challenges and successes which will help her build her confidence and help you know what matters most to her. This process will also give her a chance to find her own mistakes, an ability that you can point out as a strength:
STRENGTH: "You found that J! It looks a lot like an L that's turned around, but even a little mistake like that can't hide from you for long! You're a mistake-spotter. Next time you see that, you'll be able to fix it, so it's exactly the way you want it when you bring your paper home."
Being a mistake-spotter (which is what all perfectionists really are), gives her power over mistakes, rather than being at the mercy of them.
What if she doesn't find the mistake? When you see that she's at ease and feels validated by your success-review process, if you think it's actually necessary*, you can bring up the mistake and encourage her to find it herself like this:
CAN DO: "Hmm. Looks like you worked hard to get each one right, and I just noticed something. It seems to me there's one little mistake hiding in there. See if you can find it."
When she does, you can voice that strength (as above):
STRENGTH: "You found that J! It looks a lot like an L ..."
What if she still doesn't find the mistake herself? You can show her where it is and let her figure out what's wrong and how to fix it:
CAN DO: "(You can) try right there…"
Then when she figures it out, you can add the strength like this:
STRENGTH: "You figured that out and know what to do so it's just the way you want next time."
What if she gets stuck? Back up to a previous point of success, so she still gets the chance to figure it out herself from a place of confidence. For example, if you know she knows her letters, it could sound like this:
SAY WHAT YOU SEE: "You're wondering why that's a mistake."
CAN DO: "Draw me an L, now draw me a J. There. You know the difference! Now you can test them to see which one goes in that spot there."
STRENGTH: "You did it! You ________________!"
(What STRENGTH would you add?)
Success training like this helps perfectionist children thrive.
What about older children? Letting children of any age figure things out themselves empowers them. This is true even for teens. For example, when they forget a chore, instead of pointing out their mistake and providing solutions as in, "You forgot to take out the garbage. Take it out, now," they respond better when you simply describe the situation (SAY WHAT YOU SEE), "The garbage is full," and let them solve the problem themselves. A quick, "You knew what to do," (STRENGTH) after the fact leaves them feeling capable instead of nagged.
To the author of the question, and anyone else who reads this post: What strengths did you come up with in the exercise above? How does this kind of Success Training feel to you? Is it the same or different from what you already do?
*Note: An important thing to consider when deciding whether to point out a mistake at all, is whether perfection is actually needed. In a case like this with a 5 YO who feels good about her work, the need may actually be yours. Thinking of it that way and remembering that whatever mistakes you don't "spot," she gets to, may make your decision easier.