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How to tone down a child's perfectionist nature

(44 Posts)
Wowthishurtsalot Sun 23-Nov-14 11:56:31

Poor kid is incredibly bright but nothing less than perfection is good enough for her (nothing like her parents who are both happy just to get something finished) and she's becoming quite anxious verging on neurotic with it.

She's y5 and it's something we want to nip in the bud before it becomes a real MH issue with her. But from my experience with bright people neurosis and perfectionism seems to go hand in hand.

How have you dealt with it in your own child?

noblegiraffe Sun 23-Nov-14 12:07:59

You need to start praising her effort and not the finished product. Not "what a beautiful picture" but "wow, you worked really hard on that". If there's something she thinks she isn't good at, praise her for trying. Never praise her for being clever, because then she will fear getting things wrong as it will damage her 'clever' status.

Start a project together, where you both learn to do something. Juggling, cross-stitch, badminton, whatever. Try to start to get her to see mistakes as part of a learning journey, and an opportunity to improve, rather than a terrible calamity.

Mrscog Sun 23-Nov-14 12:09:58

Is she bright enough to understand that perfectionism is a flaw in itself as it's impossible to achieve? Realising that hammered it out of me pretty quickly although I was older.

Wowthishurtsalot Sun 23-Nov-14 12:20:03

That's a good way to look at it noble thanks. We praise the effort for the extra curricular things like music and dance but then she puts pressure on herself for exams and melts down if she doesn't get a distinction. I've asked the teachers if we can take a break from exams for a while to try and get round that problem and the music teacher is on board but dance isn't.

mrscog it sounds daft but I've never thought to explain that to her. I think I will start to introduce the idea to her

tenderbuttons Sun 23-Nov-14 14:08:18

I can also recommend a book which I think is called 'mistakes that worked' which is a list of famous inventions which came out of mistakes. We just left it hanging around rather than saying anything about it (and it was very cheap on Abebooks).

Also, for you rather than her, the Carole Dweck book on Mindset is a useful read (even if it is one of those American books in which the ideas contained in a long article have been stretched out into a book).

makemelaugh Sun 23-Nov-14 15:33:47

Yes OP, the book Mindset was an eye opener even if it states the obvious. Since I read it four years ago I have changed my approach to DS. Take the focus off the result, praise the work and effort as something to be incredibly proud of. DS had issues with perfectionism and chaging approach had a visible positive impact.
And remind your child that you really, really do not expect a distinction. And believe it yourself because children are not fools. That is the hardest bit!

Mistigri Mon 24-Nov-14 08:11:13

Another vote here for praising effort not achievement.

My very gifted daughter is now much more pragmatic than perfectionist, and it is not only beneficial from a MH point of view, but it also makes her very effective at getting stuff done, because she doesn't sweat the small stuff.

I suspect that achieving this balance is easier with some kids than with others - it's not really a gifted issue per se but more about sensitivity and anxiety. My younger child is not as able as his sister, but is much more hindered by perfectionism, and also by its twin (if I can't do it perfectly, I'll either not do it at all, or I'll make no effort).

iggly2 Mon 24-Nov-14 19:28:12

I say go for the music lessons and praise the effort thats's put in by the child. When it comes to the grades with ds I say as long as he enters the room it's fine and he can have a treat (okay..... bribe wink).

I go in hoping he can scrape through and feel it would be fine if he failed (as we could work out how to help him).

var123 Tue 25-Nov-14 09:12:45

Wowthishurtsalot - you have my sympathies. Unfortunately, I don't have any helpful suggestions even though DS1 (year 8) is the same. Like you, I can also see a real risk of a MH problem developing.

Carol Dweck and Mindset gets quoted a lot. I guess its common sense to praise them for the effort, not the actual attainment, so they learn to value having tried as protection against the day when they actually fail.

I do not want to hijack, but I will ask anyway as the answer will apply to the OP too.

Can anyone tell me how praising effort, not achievement works in practice? e.g. DS2 always gets over 90% in his maths tests, very frequently, he gets 100%, However, he doesn't actually try, which is why sometimes its as low as 90% (its too much effort to double check his answers or show workings).

What do you say to a child who got the best mark in the class, but didn't try? You got 90% but you dropped 10%, so you must try to get the full 100%?? Or I see you got 100%, but so what since you are not trying? (After all its not his fault that the teacher isn't setting him challenging work).

makemelaugh Tue 25-Nov-14 09:36:40

Good question. But how can you be sure he isn't trying? Very bright kids can make mistakes or forget to show workings or check answers just because they are still young or simply human. How do you know he isn't trying?

var123 Tue 25-Nov-14 10:40:00

You know how school does repetition ad nauseum? Well the questions DS2 gets wrong are exactly like the questions he got right the first time he saw them maybe two or three years earlier. If you ask them verbally, he can compute them incredibly quickly in his head, and usually he has the answer way before me (and I have a degree in the subject).

What he can't be bothered with is taking time to read the question properly, double checking his answers with the (masses of) time left or showing workings. Its been an ongoing battle for years. Not least because the teachers at one point were using the incomplete series of 100% results to "prove" in discussions with me that DS2 is challenged!

In DS2's view everyone knows that he knows how to do it, so what's there to gain from proving it? It won't mean he will be given challenging work - he lost hope of that a long time ago.

noblegiraffe Tue 25-Nov-14 11:12:22

If you've got a degree in the subject, the why don't you challenge him? The you can praise any effort he makes on something which is genuinely difficult. "Yes, I know you find school work easy, how about this problem?"

There are plenty of resources out there for maths. Try the n-rich website for interesting problems?

var123 Tue 25-Nov-14 13:03:15

noblegiraffe - thanks. I had thought of that!! DS2 has it in his head that he knows it all. He doesn't want to be bored any further at home. I show him things when he lets me, and sometimes he is engaged for a while but he does learn awfully quickly and stops the second that he has "got it".

Four years or so ago, he did want to learn at home. So I taught him one summer and he really enjoyed it. The following September the school ordered (yes, really ordered!) me to stop as "he was too far ahead". They also forced him to spend that year revising, not learning anything new at all. After that, he was much less enthusiastic about the subject, and I've only seen the odd flash of short-lived enthusiasm since.

I keep hoping for better things when he goes to secondary.

But I really do not want to hijack OP, and I am sorry for the amount that I already have. I was just wondering, given the OP's situation (which is like mine) how do you praise effort but not attainment when attainment is very high with very low effort?

noblegiraffe Tue 25-Nov-14 13:39:44

It's a shame there isn't someone close to him in ability who can challenge him to the top spot. That's the thing that usually pushes the bright boys to up their game.

However, if there is no effort being made and he is simply coasting, I suppose I would keep asking if he checked his answers every test as that is his target and focus effort praise on subjects where he struggles. Maybe in secondary he won't be a big fish in a small pond and that might help if he is not always top.

It's quite important to build overcoming failure into the lives of kids so you have to give the really bright kids opportunities to fail.

thatwhichwecallarose Tue 25-Nov-14 13:50:39

I'm sorry for adding to the hijack but can I ask var123 why it matters whether he gets 100% or 90%? I mean that genuinely not trying to antagonise. I was that child at school that didn't try but still achieved. Whilst I could have achieved more I am really happy with where I am in life.

So when my dd (who is showing signs of being smarter than the average bear already) is the same, how do I convince her? (Btw I do do the praise effort not achievement, which is a lot easier to do when she's 3!)

var123 Tue 25-Nov-14 14:33:24

It mattered to me when the teachers were using the odd 90% as proof that he was being challenged. i.e. they were saying that as he obviously was unable to do some of the work when tested, he clearly did not know it inside out as I was suggesting. Therefore, the teacher was justified in entering Ds2 into another prolonged phase of repetition. it was the repetition that was the problem, not the 90%.

I told Ds2 that if he would just get the 100% every time, then the teacher would give him new work. He wanted new work, so he took my advice, which turned out to be wrong. I've been through every delaying tactic the school can through at me, and I honestly can't recall which excuse the school used next to avoid challenging Ds2.

Mistigri Wed 26-Nov-14 08:10:18

Var123 I suspect my children are a bit older than yours, but we have some experience with this as we are in a foreign school system which by and large does not offer in-class differentiation although there is some setting in my kids' school and acceleration is possible.

My DD was one of those children who tends to not bother if it's too easy, or if the topic doesn't interest her. To me this isn't acceptable. Children have to learn that they won't be challenged and stimulated all the time - even clever kids will have to do entry level jobs some day (DD is doing work experience this week and it's been an eye opener for her - yes, clever adults DO have to perform dull repetitive tasks too!). I explicitly praise when my kids do well despite finding the lessons a bit dull.

On the other hand, you have to avoid insisting on perfection. Kids have off days. 90% is a good mark and I'm not going to pressurize my kids to get 100% all the time, but at the same time if I know they weren't trying then I'm not going to praise either. They know that I know exactly how much effort went into something.

I can't say this approach will work with all children (jury is still out on my DS) but it has worked wonders with my daughter.

var123 Wed 26-Nov-14 11:31:55

Its good advice, thank you.
Obviously there is a difference though between not being challenged all of the time and not being challenged any of the time.

However, all i really wanted to ask was how to I encourage Ds2 in maths when all I ever have to work with is attainment since he really does not require effort to get 90%+ results.

HellKitty Wed 26-Nov-14 11:40:03

I'm not sure that my advice will be helpful. My 13yr old is autistic, bright but not 'gifted'. But he did have problems with perfection, the teachers advised me that he wasn't to use pencils at home or school as these can be rubbed out. Pens got him through that stage!

var123 Wed 26-Nov-14 11:59:25

FWIW I always try to put myself in my children's shoes. I ask myself why does DS1 beat himself up when he does something that is very good but less than perfect?

The answer I always come back with is low self-esteem. Although it makes no sense given his talents and frankly how deep down nice he is (mother's view!), I believe he doesn't love himself enough and the perfectionism is a form of bullying. Things that make no sense to anyone but the person concerned, are the defining characteristic of MH issues though.

So, I do my best to find ways to help him raise his self-esteem, albeit with limited success. Then again, how low would DS1's self-esteem have otherwise been if I hadn't done what I have done to try to help it?

Mistigri Wed 26-Nov-14 12:54:28

I think there is a link between self-esteem and praise.

There's some evidence that praising achievement rather than effort results in children who cope less easily with failure and whose self-esteem is much easier to knock if they don't get things just right. The theory is that if you encourage children to focus on the process (what and how they are learning) rather than the end result, it can lead to a more robust sense of self-worth that allows the child to cope more easily with difficult tasks and failure.

But probably there's a personality component too, certainly my DD is more robust mentally and less perfectionist/anxious than her younger brother.

I'm curious as to why you describe your son as "perfectionist" when he is getting lower marks than he is capable of - this is the sort of thing that DD used to do, and I wouldn't describe her as perfectionist (easily frustrated for sure, but not perfectionist!). While I don't think you should actively encourage children to underperform, I don't think it's unhealthy behaviour in itself - a child who is regularly getting 90% when they could get 100% with a bit more effort has probably just made a pragmatic decision that results in an acceptable (to them) balance between effort and reward.

var123 Wed 26-Nov-14 13:17:07

Ds1 - perfectionist and highly able.

DS2 - unchallenged at school and prefers 90% to effort, but no perfectionism or any other concerns

Mistigri Wed 26-Nov-14 14:06:19

Your DS sounds like my DD then. If it helps, she's just finishing junior high this year with impeccable results - she puts in exactly as much effort as is required to fool her teachers into thinking that she is the perfect student ;) She not the most hardworking student ever but she is a very efficient and effective worker (which can make it easy to underestimate how much work she puts in).

TravelinColour Wed 26-Nov-14 14:10:09

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

BendySquintySquidgy Wed 26-Nov-14 14:55:40

Place marking as DD (also Yr1) is showing signs of being a perfectionist. Very able and veers between not wanting to do something because it is far too easy (e.g. School reading book "too thin", maths which she could have done two years ago, etc.) OR ending up in floods of tears if she makes a tiny mistake...Travel the panic sounds horribly familiar. Awful to watch them go through this at such a young age. We've been praising effort since nursery first pointed out tendencies to perfectionism 3 years ago (!!!) but seems to be getting worse again with new Yr1 homework...

Var123 I'm sorry the school have been so unhelpful. Can you not take your concerns further up the chain of command? Does your DS very clearly understand why you're asking about the missing 10% for those particular exams? I only ask because I was very similar at school - it was easy, I coasted but still got top marks.

My mother tried to get them to challenge me but it led to horrid conversations at home about grades. I was once asked, "What happened to the other 4%?" after getting 96% in a biology exam. Backfired dramatically on my mother, as from that point onwards I made zero effort with the subject. I think, at the time, I took her questioning to mean that I wasn't good enough.

Now this CLEARLY isn't what you are saying to your DS but I do wonder, having been there at an impressionable age, how any of our little perfectionists/bright ones might take such questioning? How does DS respond to praise for effort? Does he have a hobby which requires effort but can't be marked or graded, as such? FWIW, after years of coasting, I got a short, sharp shock when the work got harder and my exam grades dropped. The 'other 4%' conversation paled into insignificance when we discussed those results! confused

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