The Dangers of Perfectionism

Q: I have a daughter starting first grade in September and I’m concerned about her ability to adapt and meet the expectations that come with being a first-grader. I am not particularly concerned with the challenge of sitting at a desk for long periods of time — which is hard for most playful six-year-olds — as she was required to sit at her desk in Pre-1A this year and she managed pretty well.

What mainly concerns me is her desire to be perfect in her classwork. She can give up fairly easily when she can’t do something. Learning alef-beis was no easy accomplishment, as she would say “I don’t know” when she wasn’t sure of the name of a letter that she was asked to identify. I doubt that the teacher will understand the situation because my daughter is not rigid about everything; she’s not particularly neat or exacting in keeping her knapsack tidy, etc. What are ways that my husband and I can deal with the perfectionist attitude that she exhibits towards her classwork?

A: Some children have great difficulty dealing with the reality of human imperfection — and with their own imperfection in particular. Such children may erase part of their drawing numerous times, and feel quite frustrated if they are not comfortable with the picture’s final outcome. Not having the desired masterpiece can be very disappointing for such a child.

Another child might be fearful of not knowing the “correct” answer in class, and would rather not answer (or daydream) than be embarrassed by answering the teacher incorrectly. This child may not appear to be a perfectionist, and may not be so exacting in other areas of his life, but in the areas where he does have these feelings, his frustration tolerance is very low.

It is written that: “Ein tzaddik ba’aretz asher yaaseh tov v’lo yechta” (there is no tzaddik that has lived without committing a transgression). But certain people can still be consumed by destructive guilt due to their various human foibles.

A parent might need to verbalize how he himself made a mistake that day and how reparations were made. (Clearly, in order to maintain the child’s respect for the parent, the mistake verbalized should be a minor one and not be said in a manner of confession to one’s child.) However, the idea of rectifying one’s mistakes is an integral concept in a person’s life, and one that can be introduced in the life of a child of quite a young age.

A parent can color with a child in a coloring book and intentionally color the people’s faces green or purple, and laugh at how people can also have make-believe face color. A parent can also color out of the lines slightly, to get the point across to such a child that every page in the book doesn’t have to be perfect.

A parent can have a discussion with his child about how his perfectionist attitude seems to be making him quite sad. Together they can try to problem-solve and come up with ways to deal with thoughts such as: “I’m supposed to get everything right. What’s going on here?”

A parent can ask his child: “Are such thoughts helping you to try harder, or just to feel sad?” “What other thoughts can you think that can really help you?” is another possible question to ask.

Most importantly, a parent has to scrutinize his own behavior and be sure that he himself is not being a role-model for perfectionism. A child learns coping mechanisms best (both healthy and faulty) from those people closest to them. Modeling our own helpful ways of coping is an invaluable tool for our children.

B’hatzlachah rabbah!