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.
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 . . .