Josh Johnson was in kindergarten when he started tearing up his artwork if he felt it wasn’t perfect. In grade school, he progressed to tossing out other assignments that didn’t meet his lofty standards. The one that stands out for his mother, Laura Frey, of Shearwater, NS, was a story he wrote in grade three. “His teacher just about cried,” she recalls. “It was such a beautiful story.”
One time, Josh started crying in the car on the way to soccer — not a game, mind you, just registration. “What if I’m not good enough? What if I don’t score any goals?” he asked. And before he signed up for Beavers, Josh worried about not being able to play the games right.
These are signs of perfectionism, the overdeveloped desire to be, or appear to be, perfect. Early in childhood a certain kind of perfectionism is part of normal development, says Gordon Flett, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto. Between ages two and four, many kids have strong preferences, even little obsessions — like always having toast cut in triangles or wanting their stuffed toys arranged just so at bedtime. But most kids outgrow these quirks as they develop a greater understanding of the complexity and diversity of their world.
True perfectionism goes beyond strong preferences, of course. In young kids, says Flett, it’s often rooted in a combination of high levels of ability, personality and emotional development. “A lot of the kids we see are very capable but have a low tolerance for frustration, an anxious personality or are more prone to emotional upset than other children,” he says.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with kids having a passion to do well, whether it’s at school, piano or karate. Perfectionism becomes a problem when it causes ongoing distress for a child or the people around him, when it’s all-encompassing — occurring in several areas of the child’s life instead of just one — or when the child is avoiding important activities for fear of not meeting high expectations.
Allie Wilton,* a mother of two from Waterloo, Ont., became seriously concerned about her six-year-old daughter’s perfectionism about 1½ years ago. “If Karan can’t do something exactly right the first time, she has a meltdown,” says Wilton. “A couple of months ago, she was trying to put a braid in her doll’s hair. I was upstairs, but I could hear her huffing and puffing, getting more upset by the minute. The whole thing escalated to the point where she actually said to me, ‘I think the world would be a better place without me.’” Another time Karan asked why God had made other children better than she was. Not surprisingly, Wilton sought professional help.
A psychological assessment revealed that Karan was intellectually gifted, but behind in her emotional development. Gifted children often have a perfectionist streak, says Flett. They can do a lot of things very well, so they expect to be good at everything. Karan’s poor ability to regulate emotions meant the frustration of not always getting things exactly right often overwhelmed her. When a child’s intellectual and emotional development are more in sync, a perfectionist tendency would likely be less problematic.
Flett says perfectionism can also be one way children react to serious family problems, such as alcoholism, abuse or neglect. “Some children try to compensate for a far-from-ideal situation by becoming ideal themselves,” he says.
How parents can help
There is no quick DIY fix for perfectionism, but there are some things parents can do to minimize stress and gradually shape children’s behaviour in the desired direction. Flett says the key is to help kids cope with the feelings that go along with perfectionism, like emotional upset or an unwillingness to give up and move on. “You may not be able to change the perfectionism itself,” he says.
Model, model, model Be a good example by setting realistic goals, laughing at mistakes (and learning from them) and letting kids see that sometimes it’s good to stop persisting with an impossible task. All kids need to learn to let go, but it’s even more important for little perfectionists.
Don’t make it worse Some of the ways parents contribute to perfectionist tendencies are obvious: being overly critical, overemphasizing high achievement and being very upset by or self-critical of one’s own mistakes. Overscheduling and not leaving enough time for free play may also promote perfectionism, Flett says.
Forgive your child and yourself Try not to get mad at your child for being the way she is, or too down on yourself when you can’t make her challenges disappear. Acknowledge and support her natural desire to succeed, as well as the fact that you aren’t in control of the goals she sets for herself. But try to nudge her toward realistic ones — “very good” rather than “perfect.”
Point out normal failure in others Even illustrious high achievers, such as Sidney Crosby, Maria Sharapova, even Hannah Montana, make mistakes.
The broad goal is to help your child minimize distress and manage areas where his perfectionism comes into play. As he matures, you can help him set more realistic expectations and develop ways to cope with challenges, mistakes and failures.
Frey says her son Josh’s perfectionism has mellowed now that he’s 16. “It started to even out around grade six,” says his mom. “He switched to French immersion and got in with a new group of kids. Puberty may have played a role too. The perfectionism is still there and I think it always will be. But it’s definitely less of a problem than it was between the ages of five and 10.”
Perfectionism — or at least having lofty goals — isn’t all bad. Last May, Karan Wilton decided to hold a garage sale to raise money to help chimpanzees — specifically, the Jane Goodall Institute. Word got around her neighbourhood, people donated items and the sale raised $485. The Canadian office of the Jane Goodall Institute sent Karan an email telling her she was making the world a better place — a nice boost for a girl who once wondered if the world would be a better place without her.
*Names changed by request.