What to Try When . . . Your Kid Is a Perfectionist, Part 3

A few more things perfectionist kids need our help with:

  • Perfectionists with soft hearts and guilty consciences need help learning to filter what they hear. My mom came home from school when she was a kid and tearfully told her mother that she was always in trouble and the teacher was always upset with her. When my grandmother called the teacher to investigate, she realized that my mother was doing great in school, but she was taking responsibility for the rebukes that were intended for others in the class. Classic guilty perfectionist behavior! A guilty perfectionist will often assume other people’s guilt—they have to learn to hear what THEY need to hear, and filter out what’s meant for other people. (And when they’re grown-ups, they might have to learn to filter sermons, and even strongly worded biblical passages, ha! I don’t speak from personal experience here or anything . . . )
  • Perfectionists need help learning that life is not a competition. The sooner they realize that God has given them great gifts, but even so, there will ALWAYS be someone who is better or faster or smarter—and that’s perfectly okay—the happier their life will be.
  • Group activities like school and sports, especially team sports, are a great environment for perfectionists to learn how to handle life. The more exposure they can have to the wide world, the better. The thing about sports is, unfair things happen all the time: referees make bad calls; coaches put someone else in instead; the ball bounces the wrong way . . . and these things teach perfectionists to roll with life a little bit, and to put their own achievements aside in order to help a group succeed.

Missed the other two posts on perfectionism? Take at a peek at the posts from day 1 and day 2!

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What to Try When . . . Your Kid Is a Perfectionist, Part 2

Perfectionists present a unique conundrum: On the one hand, they tend to be arrogant and stubbornly resistant to ever admitting error (because of the whole I-should-always-be-perfect-so-I-deserve-death-if-I-am-ever-wrong complex), but then if they ever DO manage to admit they are wrong, they can take it too far . . . they can sink into an abyss of self-loathing that is tough to dig out of. When you see your kid descend into the I-am-awful abyss, you may be tempted never to parent them firmly again, lest you permanently damage their self-esteem . . . but that’s an overreaction. Gah! What’s a parent to do?

Perfectionist kids need two seemingly contradictory things from their parents: They need BOTH strong parenting (especially in helping them be humble—see Perfectionist Kids Part 1) AND heaping doses of grace. There can be NO DOG HOUSE for the perfectionist. Once they see that they’ve been wrong about something, help them to accept and feel forgiveness—from you, and from God. After they see that they’ve made a mistake, you may have to reassure them a hundred times (maybe even five hundred—no, I’m not kidding) that they are forgiven, and that you have moved on. They might bring up the mistake they made six months or a year from now, still feeling guilty about it, and worried that you are upset with them about it. Patiently and generously reassure them AGAIN (and again and again) that all is forgiven and forgotten. My dad must have told me a thousand times that being a Christian means I am “in grace”—this is a permanent state, not subject to the fluctuations of my imperfect performance.

Confusing? Yes. Will you show too much firmness sometimes, and too much tolerance at other times? Probably. Welcome to the world of the perfectionist. It’s tough to do this complicated personality justice in short posts, but I hope this will help get your thinking started, and get you into some productive conversations with wise parents who know your kids personally and can help you navigate the difficult terrain of their hearts.

But it can be done. I’m a perfectionist, and aside from some obsessive-compulsive laundry-folding behavior, most of the time, I’m sort of normal. Wait. Was that prideful? Now I feel guilty.

Want a great scripture to share with perfectionist kids, to help them better understand God’s love for them? Click here for a short devotional, “Guess Who Thinks You’re Awesome.”

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What to Try When . . . Your Kid Is a Perfectionist, Part 1

When kids won't say sorry

Several people have asked recently about helping children deal with perfectionism . . . as a semi-reformed perfectionist myself, I have more experience with this than I wish I had (hence a long post).

We’ll start with what may be the most difficult, excruciating thing a perfectionist must learn to do: Admit when they’re wrong.

For a perfectionist, admitting to a mistake feels like a violation of their entire being and an eternal, death-worthy failure. (Laugh if you want, you non-perfectionists, but this is how perfectionists feel. This is why we get SO emotional and defensive when someone suggests we might be wrong.) Perfectionists also have an overdeveloped sense of justice and fairness. But this is one of the most important lessons we must teach our perfectionist children: to admit (fully admit, humbly admit) when they are wrong, and to be okay with that (and then to sincerely apologize). You’re going to feel like a broken record with this, because they’re going to be working on this on some level for their whole life.

When kids won't say sorry

I recently found this note after an unfortunate apple argument between our girls. Technically, the apology is there, but somehow she still gets the last word…Classic perfectionist behavior!

Help them understand that everyone makes mistakes. Remind them that the whole point of being a child is to learn. No kid is born knowing everything, and guess what? No adult is perfect, either. The Bible will be your friend here, especially the Proverbs about humility and embracing correction. You can also have a lot of fun retelling Bible stories about all the Bible characters who made big mistakes but still did great things with their lives. Share lots of stories from your own mistakes (past and present!), and help them see that you can laugh about them.

When a perfectionist child is fighting you on admitting that they are wrong, you will have to talk them through it—it may take a while, but eventually they must reach a place of surrender and true humility—NOT a disgruntled “okay, fine, I concede that I might have possibly been a teensy bit in error.” Keep this in mind: If your kid never learns to say “uncle” and admit when they’re wrong, they are in for a very hard life. They will fight their teachers and coaches, and they’ll have a tough time working out conflict with friends. If you teach them how to admit wrong in the safe, unconditionally loving environment of home, they will one day learn to be humble out in the world.

In the moment, if your perfectionist is fighting you, try this: First, let them calm down if they’re flipping out. When they’re calm enough to listen, you will probably have to appeal to their logic—to reason them through it. (I’m talking here about kids ages four or five and up—you really can’t reason with a two- or three-year-old.) Your kid may fight you on the details—if you say ONE thing that feels off, or unfair, or invalid, they may try to disregard everything else you’re saying. That’s not okay. Listen to their objections; hear them out; but then help them to understand: No one will ever correct them perfectly. They still have to learn to say “You are right; I am wrong.” They’ve got to learn to hear the spirit of what is being said, even if it is not said perfectly. (When I was a teenager, I remember my dad explaining that sometimes when people are trying to help you see something in yourself, their correction is like firing a shotgun: while every pellet won’t strike home, the shot is generally pointed in the right direction . . . so I needed to accept the spirit of a correction. That really helped me learn not to fixate on the one wrong detail.)

Okay, this is getting long . . . so I’ll stop now and come back tomorrow . . .

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Prevent parenting burn-out, step 4: Encourage independence and responsibility.

Chores kids can do

I have a simple theory that keeps me from losing my mind with four young kids in the house: If my kids CAN do it for themselves, then most of the time, they SHOULD do it for themselves.

For example, when they say, “Mommy, can I have some water?” I say, “Sure! Help yourself!” (I’ve got the kid cups stored in a cabinet low to the ground, so they can get the cups themselves and head to the little dispenser in the fridge.) My three big kids (now ages 6, 8 and 9) are responsible for a lot of small household tasks that add up to huge time savings for me: They put away their own laundry; they make their own beds; they clear their plates after meals; they put their homework folders and lunches into their book bags themselves each morning; they clean up after themselves whenever they get toys out; they take turns with basic chores like vacuuming, cleaning windows (oh how they LOVE spraying cleaner on the windows!), emptying the non-breakable stuff from the dishwasher, carrying clothes from the hamper to the laundry room, and wiping down the table.

All in all, they probably spend 5-10 minutes a day, and 15 minutes on Saturday mornings, carrying out their little responsibilities. I love watching them do their jobs around the house—I can tell they feel grown up, and it gives them a sense of pride, knowing they help keep our household running. Even my 6-year-old does a fantastic job helping, and she’s so proud to feel like an important, useful member of the family.

All of this keeps our house from descending into utter ruin, and keeps me from spiraling into overwhelmed exhaustion! You’d be surprised how much your kids can do for themselves…try expecting a little more, and then have fun watching them rise to the occasion (while you sit for two minutes with your feet up, sipping a cup of tea).

Here’s a helpful post about chores, and how they teach kids to embrace responsibility at home—I met Renee earlier this year at a writers’  conference, and I just love her blog!

Want to back-track and read more about preventing parenting burn-out? Click here to read about ways to carve out “Me time” as a mom; click here for thoughts on quieting your self-critical thoughts; read a post on nurturing your marriage after kids here.

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Prevent parenting burn-out, step 3: Make time for US.

Keep dating your spouse after baby

When we start having kids, the first thing to go is Me Time. The second thing to go is Us Time. How quickly we forget that we used to do other things together besides buying diapers, changing diapers, and debating who has to take the next bag of dirty diapers out to the trash can! I say this NOT as a guilt trip, but as an Emancipation Proclamation, Setting You Free to Enjoy Your Post-Baby Life Without Guilt: Keep dating your spouse after you have kids. Every penny you pay a babysitter will be worth it. Every tearful “Don’t leeeeave me Mommyyyyy” moment will be worth it. (Two seconds after you leave, they’ll probably be running around the house laughing anyway.) At first, just try driving half a mile away for half an hour of baby-free coffee. Then work your way up to dinner. If you’re blessed with a spouse, giving your kids the gift of happily married parents is a priceless inheritance, one they will treasure for a lifetime. And hey—after a while, your kids may do what mine do: They BEG me to get babysitters, because babysitters are more fun than I am. Which only hurts my feelings a tiny bit.

Want some great insights about keeping the romantic fires burning in your marriage after babies come? I’m a huge fan of Sheila Wray Gregoire’s blog, and this post in particular: Sex After Kids: 17 Ways to Make It Happen. I posted more ideas for keeping your marriage healthy here.

Missed the other posts on preventing parenting burn-out? Click here to check out step one, the importance of making time for yourself. (I hear you laughing out there in cyberspace . . . but you can do it!) And click here for step two, about quieting the insidious, NOT-TRUE voice of our inner critic that insists we’re not good enough.

Photo credit: Sara Engel Photography.  

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