The Bogey of Perfectionism
I’ve always found perfectionists to be a little intimidating – even a bit scary if truth be told. I envisage these perfect individuals with perfect rows of shoes and colour coded clothes. And of course perfect handwriting.
But that’s where the shock and awe ends. Because although adult perfectionists are happy in their perfection – I’m not so sure that this applies to children.
Perfectionism may seem to be a rather desirable trait at first. After all, a child who is a perfectionist tends to be highly motivated with high standards of achievement.
But it isn’t that simple. Perfectionism can be a two-edged sword. Beneath the desire to be perfect is a scary bogey – the fear of failure.
We all know that a large part of a child’s learning process involves exploration and experimentation. By its very nature, learning is a trial and error process that requires a certain amount of freedom and latitude.
But this is not the case with perfectionism because it is more about obeying rules rather than investigating or trying out new things. And it kills creativity.
You see, a child who is afraid of failure will do anything to avoid making mistakes.
She will be uncomfortable about using her own initiative because it invites uncertainty. The result is usually formalism and the inevitable stifling of creativity which is one of the first casualties to suffer from perfectionism.
A True Story
This reminds me of a true story about Peta, a little girl of about 10 who had always wanted to be an artist ever since she could remember. She had carefully collected all her little penciled sketches in a book that she prized. Her drawings were fine and meticulous.
When a friend of her parents saw her drawings she was impressed and decided to do her a good turn by introducing her to an established artist. Peta was thrilled to be invited to the artist’s studio but when she saw the artist’s larger than life canvases and colourful, bold paintings she felt completely overwhelmed.
On returning home, she examined her careful sketches with dismay. Compared to the artist’s paintings she had just seen, her own sketches looked so insipid and amateurish that she could only see them as evidence of her own inadequacy. She soon lost heart and after that no one could persuade her to put pen to paper again.
Any other child might have been inspired by the artist’s studio but Peta, being a perfectionist, had a fear of not ever being able to reach the high standards she desired for herself.
It’s a rather sad little story but it illustrates the destructive effects of perfectionism – the fear of failure .
Of course this doesn’t only happen to children – do you remember when you had writer’s block; or left that painting half finished. Or gave up playing the guitar?
Creativity cannot thrive where there are too many restrictions and rules. It can only thrive in an atmosphere where the child feels free to experiment.
The Signs of Perfectionism
So how can you tell if your child is too much of a perfectionist?
It’s quite easy really.
- She will tend to be anxious to do everything correctly.
- She will be wary of experimenting on her own and will choose to stick to safe methods dictated to her by her teachers and parents.
- Her written work will be neat and accurate while any little mistakes will stress her.
- Her handwriting will be carefully executed with few signs of individuality or originality.
A child needs to know that it’s ok to make mistakes. Mistakes are a normal part of learning and they should be taught that failure does not have to be dreaded. It is simply a part of the process on the road to success.
Failure itself can be forgiven and forgotten. But failure to try is defeat indeed.