Perfectionist kid?
September 10, 2013 5:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for advice for helping my 5 year old (new kindergartener) daughter deal with what looks like nascent perfectionist tendencies.

So my daughter just started kindergarten this week, and a completely expected (by us, her parents) issue came up. Background: she's just turned five, and has entered into a gifted program in a regular NYC public school. We picked more of an enrichment program than an accelerated program for her, because neither my husband nor I really believe in pushing or pressuring kids, but she was extremely bored in pre-K and she tested into the program, so what the hey.

She's always had issues with wanting to get things right immediately, and giving up on them, getting extremely angry or upset if she doesn't. We have always been very very careful to praise effort rather than achievement and emphasize working at things, sticking with things and practice. Our daughter can talk the talk of all of that, but when it comes down to it, she gets frustrated and angry. Because of this (we think) she's quite far behind in her reading (when compared to her "gifted" classmates) because she can barely sound words out, but she's all over basic algebra, because she finds the latter easy, whereas she has to put effort into reading.

Came to a head this evening when all she had to do for her homework (they only get 5 or so minutes, plus reading time -- it's not really a big deal) was to draw a picture of what good behavior in class might look like. We had a massive tantrum (rare to have a reaction of this degree, tantrums are not common at all for her) because she wouldn't be the best or have the best picture. Declarations that she never wants to draw again. She put her crayons in the trash.

Again, let me emphasize that we have never pushed her in this direction, and are far more likely to praise her helping or kindness than being the best at something.

SO! For those of you who have kids like this, or ones with similar tendencies. What the hell do you do? Both my husband and I are reasonably laid back people (our friends have often wondered how we ended up with a little drama queen) and these outbursts are startling. And it breaks our heart to see her comparing herself so harshly to other kids at the age of 5. Books to read? Scripts? Activities?

NB1. We've alerted her teacher to this issue as well, just via questionnaire because school literally started yesterday in NYC public schools. We'll get to talk to him face to face in the next couple of weeks. NB2 Her pediatrician is also keeping an eye on her for anxiety.
posted by gaspode to Human Relations (35 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Do you ever have her redo things if she hasn't done them the way they need to be done? How do you model dealing with failure or an undesired outcome? One thing my parents didn't do with me is show me how to deal with failure gracefully and to this day if I can't do something right the first time my gut reaction is not to do it at all. Effort is good but effort alone doesn't get people anywhere. She needs you to show her how to evaluate her work and her actions in a healthy way so she can sense for herself what it means to do a good job of something -- and that doing a good job or a bad one isn't tied to her self worth in your eyes.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:19 PM on September 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

My older kid is a lot like this. We signed her up for a new kind of dance class a couple of weeks ago and there were actual tears at the idea that she might have to take a class beneath her age group to catch up. And she's 11 now, if that gives you any perspective.

The single biggest thing that helps her is making sure she gets a lot of sleep at night. Lots and lots. I can't begin to stress to you how important this is in a kid's ability to cope.

But most of the time when she has a meltdown it's not actually about the issue at hand at all. It's kind of a symptom of being overwhelmed by something else going on in her life. Some of her friends not getting along with one another, or feeling like a teacher disliked her, or being a little overscheduled with special activities. For you, it sounds like it's not about the drawing, but about feeling like she's behind her new classmates in some ways. I'd do a little investigating to see if anyone at school has said or done anything to make her feel bad, and then have a casual conversation about how different people are good and bad at different things and that's OK, nobody can be good at everything all the time.

The transition to the new school year is always kind of rough. Make sure bedtime is rock-solid and maybe earlier than usual, but don't panic until she's had a good couple of weeks to settle in. This might well just be "new school is new and that's scary."
posted by Andrhia at 6:34 PM on September 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

With reading, we found that it helped for us to take turns. Our daughter would throw a tantrum and say "I can't read that!" We'd say, "OK then, let's take turns. You read a page, and then mommy and daddy will read a page. We will do it together." Then ... "great job! Can you you read it back to us by yourself?"

It's possible that reading may not "click" for her until later -- and that's totally fine! My daughter's kindergarten teacher was concerned about her reading skills, but she made great strides in first grade.

You can also label stuff in your house. Door, window, refrigerator, milk, closet, etc. -- get her used to seeing the words and connecting them with the object, sort of like real-life flash cards.

You also have to pick your battles. If your daughter thew her crayons in the trash (boy does that sound familiar) it's probably best to let her cool off in another room while you secretly retrieve them. Encourage her to try again later. Maybe sit down with her and make a list together of what she could illustrate, and then offer her several choices. Sometimes approaching it from the angle of offering a choice seems to help. Instead of "Please sit down and draw," say "Would you rather draw a picture of the line leader or the lunch helper?"

Also, use your child's natural interests to reinforce what she is learning in school. If she loves dinosaurs, spend some time counting toy dinosaurs, coloring dinosaurs, and reading about dinosaurs. Even better, write a story for her incorporating her as a character along with her favorite things. All you need is MS Word and Google Image Search for the pictures (or draw yours own)-- make it fun!

Our daughter needed a sensory outlet for some of the anxiety she felt, so we also stuck a strip of velcro under her desk at school. She'd stroke the velcro to calm herself down. Weird, but it worked. Gifted children have a higher rate of sensory processing issues ... they are often just a little bit more sensitive.
posted by Ostara at 6:49 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some basic cognitive-behavioral techniques might be helpful. One that may be effective for anxiety and perfectionism would be to use Socratic questioning to talk her through what she's imagining as the worst-case scenario -- not in a dismissive way, but in a genuinely curious way.

For example, "OK, so you're worried your picture won't be the best in the class. What would happen if your picture wasn't the best in the class?" [whatever answer she gives, let's imagine "Everyone will make fun of me."] "OK, and what would you do if everyone made fun of you?" [answer, let's imagine "I'd be really embarrassed."] "OK, so if everyone made fun of you, you'd be really embarrassed. What are things you can do to feel better if you get embarrassed?"

Goals for the parent in these sorts of interactions are to fully accept her reality at the beginning (that is, don't say that whatever she's worried about doesn't matter, or that the worst-case scenario she's imagining is unrealistic, even if either or both of those things is objectively true), and then to help talk her through problem-solving ideas for whatever she's imagining the worst-case scenario to be. She might come up with ideas on her own, or you could suggest some ("Maybe you could talk to the teacher about it." "What would happen if you took three really deep breaths and counted to 10?" etc.). Your accepting her feelings should help her feel understood, and your encouraging her to brainstorm solutions (even to absurd situations) should help calm her anxiety about being unprepared.

It's possible to get kids to spin the worst-case scenarios into such absurdity ("If I don't write my name perfectly, then it won't be my name anymore, then I won't exist anymore, then the universe will explode") that they make themselves laugh, which can also be a helpful way of dealing with anxiety.

Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents' Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience by Peter Levine is a great book with very concrete exercises for helping kids bounce back from setbacks, even minor setbacks. Levine is one of the top experts on treating trauma (and one of the few who's using science, rather than gut feelings, to explore treatments), and his work is very readable.
posted by jaguar at 6:50 PM on September 10, 2013 [36 favorites]

If it doesn't resolve, take her out of the program - better to be periodically bored than to perceive herself inadequate and incompetent in comparison to her classmates. Additionally, academic ability/intelligence is very much secondary at that age; she simply may not be emotionally mature enough to succeed and thrive in her current learning environment.
posted by Nibiru at 6:52 PM on September 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Your question made me think of this article... Maybe it will help?

Psychology Today The Trouble With Bright Girls
posted by HMSSM at 6:53 PM on September 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

This post from today includes a video that may give you ideas - it involved the author talking about mistakes/perfectionism with her 6 year old daughter.
posted by cecic at 6:58 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try to convince her that practice is the act of accumulating failures, of making mistakes. That the point of practice is to make enough mistakes that there are none left, and that you never know quite how many mistakes there are until you've made them all, and run out of duplicates.
posted by ead at 6:59 PM on September 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

i was totally your daughter.

first, what the fuck does good behavior look like? that is an abstract concept, not a concrete thing. would she have freaked out if the assignment had been "draw your favorite animal"? did she have an idea of what to draw but just KNEW she would suck at drawing, or could she, at 5, just not conceptualize how to draw a behavior?

anyway. perfectionism is hard. i still struggle with it. it stems from so many things, things that your daughter can't understand yet and can't vocalize.

i think at this point in her life you need to reinforce that it is OKAY and YOU STILL LOVE HER even if her drawing isn't perfect or she can't tie her shoes yet or she got one question wrong on the spelling test. YOUR LOVE DOES NOT HINGE ON HER PERFECTION. nor does your approval or respect or liking of her.

at this age you are still mostly the only people in her life. she may get made fun of at school if her drawing really sucks, and SHE will remember it a week later, but no one else will. point that out to her. point out that people still like her even though she wasn't the BEST at drawing. (this is different than being mean or bullying, which blah blah blah, different post.)

it will be hard. being the best at things is really valued in american society these days. you have to be good at sports and good at math and good at science and english and you have to be homecoming queen and you have to be attractive and likeable and well-mannered and save the whales. but you can't be all those things as a kid and you're lucky if you're just one of those things.

so anyway. just reinforce that being the BEST isn't important to YOU and that her value to you does not hinge on that and SHOULDN'T hinge on that to others.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:48 PM on September 10, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Can you try to head off the frustration with a few orthogonal questions that get her thinking about options that don't fall along the best/worst continuum? Like, "What would the angriest/greenest/quietest drawing of good behavior look like?" or "What would good behavior look like for a kangaroo, or a giant, or if we lived underwater?" Or "What's the lowest/highest/silliest/scariest voice we can use when we read this outloud? Now, let's do the opposite." Something to add more interest to the actual activity (rather than the outcome being the purpose), and to show that there are many possible outcomes that aren't entirely comparable (not everything is better or worse than something, it's all relative, "yours is definitely the greenest drawing of good behavior"), and to distract from such a scary best/worst judgement. If it's an assignment, she can pick one version and know that it's definitely superlative in *some* way.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:53 PM on September 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

This is long, and it's going to come off as a little harsh. I apologize in advance if I say something upsetting, or insensitive, or completely off-base. I'm not speaking as a parent. I'm speaking as the kid. Please feel free to disregard this advice & reading if it doesn't resonate.

I was this kid. I remember vividly, going back to age 3, the extreme rage and desolation of being a kid and getting things wrong and wanting to get them right, and knowing my parents *knew* I was really smart, and succeeding brilliantly sometimes, and also feeling the only solution to something I wasn't good at was just not to try at all, and I have a sneaking suspicion that even though you guys are doing everything by the book, you're encouraging this behavior. Here's my reading of your post:

"We have always been very very careful to praise effort rather than achievement and emphasize working at things, sticking with things and practice. Our daughter can talk the talk of all of that, but when it comes down to it, she gets frustrated and angry."

We have done the homework on how to get one's kid to be happy and well-adjusted. We have watched ourselves as we've interacted with our child, sometimes stifling our knee-jerk response in order to give her the correct response. There is a wall of child-raising scholarship between us and our child. We have a very specific idea of how our daughter should act, and we treat her according to a well-researched list of instructions on how to build a happy kid, and though she can sometimes act in accordance to our very high expectations/values (regarding her well-being, not her achievement), she can't always.

"Because of this (we think) she's quite far behind in her reading (when compared to her "gifted" classmates) because she can barely sound words out, but she's all over basic algebra, because she finds the latter easy, whereas she has to put effort into reading."

We value intelligence in children and we are at pains to bring up our child's intelligence. Our daughter is probably really, really smart in all areas, and it's (we think) her fault that she's not good in every area.

"We had a massive tantrum (rare to have a reaction of this degree, tantrums are not common at all for her) because she wouldn't be the best or have the best picture. "

The kid lost it; this is really upsetting for us because we do not have a kid that loses it. That's not who she is, so her acting like someone we have decided she is not simply does not compute and means there is something very, very wrong that must be addressed. Also we know exactly why she was upset, and we judged her reason for being upset to be stupid and embarrassing.

"Again, let me emphasize that we have never pushed her in this direction, and are far more likely to praise her helping or kindness than being the best at something."

We've read the books on how to be a good parent; we've read the latest literature. And we are not perfectionist pushy parents that have a specific idea of how our daughter should act or how she should be happy and we never communicate our disappointment to her. Not even subconsciously. Let me say again, we have never communicated to her that we are disappointed in the way she acts or in the person she is becoming, NOT EVEN SUBCONSCIOUSLY. And we reject out of hand the idea that a child can read a parent better than the parent can read themself.

"We've alerted her teacher to this issue as well… Her pediatrician is also keeping an eye on her for anxiety."

Every important adult in our kid's life is paying extra-close attention to whether she is acting normally, and judging her actions, and reporting back to her parents, whom she has already at age 5 begun to disappoint.


Oof. Look -- it really, really really sounds like you guys are perfectionists, like you have a super clear idea of who your daughter should be and how she should act and she's not living up to it and it's frustrating because you have done all the research and *you* are acting "right." I'm sure the way your daughter is acting is very upsetting and worrisome to a parent that just wants her kid to be happy. Wanting your daughter to be calm and happy when that's not her natural state *is* pushing her in a direction that will only make her unhappier. My sense, and of course this is based solely on your question and not on knowing you, is that you and your husband are high achievers who value the idea of being laid back, but … I don't think you are as laid back as you think you are.

You're at pains to describe how little homework your kid is getting… but… a five year old getting homework? That's just super screwed up sounding to me, and it sounds like you're justifying it. Why? That's wayyyyy too much pressure for a 5 year old, and minimizing it by saying "it's just 5 minutes plus reading time" is assigning an adult value judgment to something your daughter can only understand from a child's point of view. You are frustrated she can't see things the way a 37 year old can. It's not "just 5 minutes," it's a set of expectations she (and honestly any truly sane 5 year old) isn't ready to handle. This doesn't sound like a great school to me. And it certainly doesn't sound like it's serving your kid well at all.

Have you considered accepting that your kid has a hard time with failure and maybe that she'll never really get over it, maybe that's just who she is -- a little high strung and a little self-flagellating -- but that even if she doesn't turn out the way you want, as a perfectly well-adjusted, happy human being, you will still love her? Can you communicate that to her? Trust me, kids know when they're disappointing or upsetting their parents, no matter how hard the parents try to hide it. Your kid knows she's making you unhappy and I bet this is exacerbating her behavior. Why not spend three months trying not to mold her behavior at all, not trying to get her to do anything, accepting without comment the tantrums, accepting the seemingly self-destructive behavior, and just telling this poor tense little kid over and over and over again that you love her and that she's the best thing to ever happen to you and seeing her fills you with joy and if she wants to throw away her crayons she can...

And meanwhile you and your husband go to a therapist and try to figure out if maybe you *are* doing something to hurt your child, despite your education and your good intentions. I think just considering the idea that you are inadvertently hurting her is a difficult and useful first step.

If nothing else, read "Drama of the Gifted Child." This book ought to be standard issue to high achieving parents.

I don't' know you, I don't know your kid a fraction of a fraction of a fraction as well as you do. I apologize if I've said anything completely off base or upsetting. I'm only speaking as a former failure-averse, remedial-reading math genius child, who took years of therapy to understand that sometimes a parent's desire for their child to be well-adjusted is as stifling as a parent's desire for their child to be a success.
posted by MaddyRex at 7:58 PM on September 10, 2013 [45 favorites]

Because of this (we think) she's quite far behind in her reading (when compared to her "gifted" classmates) because she can barely sound words out, but she's all over basic algebra, because she finds the latter easy, whereas she has to put effort into reading.

Hmm, I know you say you're laid back and not pushing, but like MaddyRex, I think that this passage was telling--you're putting a lot of esteem on her abilities and efforts at age five when they're not necessarily indicative or correlative of future successes. Or even her successes next week! How would you feel if she stayed behind in her reading, if she never really "put an effort" into it--but if she continued to love and study and rejoice in algebra? She'd be okay, right? It's okay for her to be good at algebra or like learning algebra more and okay for her to not really care as much for practicing phonics? If your attitude, deep down, is that she really should be working harder at reading (at five! five!) in order to be up to snuff with her peers, you're really suggesting that "failing" is not okay.

Because of course, she's not failing at all. She's just not quite as into this one thing right now at this minute and she's incredibly young and it will all change in no time.

Also, you might relate to this story from author & mom Rachel Hartman.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:10 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

My only credentials for giving advice is that I behaved similarly as a kid. For anything that did not come easily, I would get frustrated and give up quickly (including reading). Doing something I was good at felt very rewarding, so doing something I struggled with felt terrible in contrast. What I suggest worked for me, but I have no knowledge of child psychology.

Try to get her to focus on the long term. Remind her that if she keeps practicing she will be good at reading in first grade, and her new teacher will be so impressed! Her new first grade teacher a year from now won't even know that she struggled with reading in kindergarten. The key ideas are to try and get her to see the reward (being good at reading later on) and to mitigate the embarrassment she might be feeling by reminding her no one will know later on.

Another suggestion is to try to get someone else to talk to her. You say that she did not learn the perfectionism from you, so you may be unable to make her unlearn it. If you have a friend who is more of a perfectionist than you, have her come talk to your daughter about how even she (the friend) is not good at everything and how it took her a lot of mistakes to get good at things.
posted by Mayhembob at 8:11 PM on September 10, 2013

OMFG. Please ignore people who are using your child to work out their own issues.

You are doing well being aware of this tendency and alerting her teacher. The school year is BRAND NEW, so give yourselves a good couple of weeks to get into the swing of things before things get real. Lots of positivity, lots of praise, lots of super fun time...and in there, incorporate the little things she's getting into at school. If she doesn't realize she's "learning", failure won't even enter her mind.
posted by altopower at 8:13 PM on September 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I wasn't going to respond and let the thread go, but I don't want to derail into people talking about parental perfectionism. With a few exceptions, obviously you don't know us so you are really just going to have to believe me!

I thought upon re-reading after posting that that quoted paragraph above might ding something in people. I wrote it to emphasize that if she finds something easy, she'll go for it and if she doesn't she'll stop dead.

(Neither of us have read a parenting book beyond the "get your baby to sleep" ones back in the day, so we're not going off some sort of script. And husband didn't read until he was 7, so we are really not particularly stressed about that.)

All NYC public school kindergarteners get homework, gifted or no. Nothing I can do about that.
posted by gaspode at 8:33 PM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm just here to add my pretty easy going kid just started kindergarten. Been in Pre-K for a couple years. Was fine about everything despite being pretty shy.

All of a sudden this week he has been really emotional. Tears. About stuff he's never bothered about. Somehow - kindergarten can be a big deal and maybe this is just nerves. But drawing good behavior sound really tricky and maybe she imagines every task is going to be HARD.

Good luck!
posted by beccaj at 8:47 PM on September 10, 2013

Best answer: I am another who hugely empathizes with how you describe your daughter's reaction. I eventually did go to therapy for a myriad of issues, including a huge disconnect with my parents that I blamed myself for. The short summary of many hours of talking was that I had come to believe that my parents had long ago decided I was 'smart and capable' and thus didn't really need help with anything. Of course some of my belief was probably self-invented but it was based on very real actions if my parents and complicated by having a brother who did explicitly require more help. I remember having a similar meltdown to your daughter's when my mom suggested one day that I was getting old enough to be doing my own ponytail. I definitely panicked (I understand now because this was one thing where no matter how 'smart' I was, I could always use help doing my hair) and I expressed that panic as a tantrum and declaration that I was never going to get my hair right. But really I just wanted a little taking-care-of and my hair had always been a 'safe' area for that. It would have been far more 'dangerous' at least for me to ask for help in homework, etc. because I had already been very firmly labeled 'smart'. I also remember getting pretty frustrated when my parents tried to tell me that something didn't have to be perfect, that what i had done was 'good enough'. i couldn't really express that i knew it was good enough but i WANTED it to be perfect; the idea of revising finally got me over that hump. I guess my takeaway is to 'baby' your daughter a little more in all kinds of ways. I bet she will firmly push many of your attempts away, but you'll make it clear that it's safe for her to want support and help, no matter how 'smart' she is. And for her tendency to avoid things that aren't perfect enough...maybe suggest a 'bad draft' for school that she can work on more later. Of course that could get crazy if she insists on endless revisions of everything, but maybe supporting some her perfectionism could help her let go of other instances. I don't mean any of my suggestions as criticisms and I hope I am not projecting too much, but I think it's great you're hoping to make her days easier and maybe my interpretation can help a little.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:56 PM on September 10, 2013 [14 favorites]

Mayhembob: "Try to get her to focus on the long term. Remind her that if she keeps practicing she will be good at reading in first grade, and her new teacher will be so impressed! Her new first grade teacher a year from now won't even know that she struggled with reading in kindergarten. The key ideas are to try and get her to see the reward (being good at reading later on) and to mitigate the embarrassment she might be feeling by reminding her no one will know later on."

And if she remembers, and isn't reading well by then? Or her teacher doesn't give a shit because 'she's gifted' and thus reading is a base standard? Or she thinks that somehow, magically, being in first grade will mean she can read?

Because my kid will remember things from 1 or 2 years ago. And woe betide those who do not remember. And she remembers the swimming lessons from last summer, but is also convinced that being a 'big girl' (aka 5 or 6) will mean she can swim.

We've got different issues, similar tendency to perfectionism. We focus more on the emotional regulation than the end result though - if she's trying and gets upset, that's okay. If she's refusing to try, and throwing stuff? Not okay. That's not how we deal with things, or hard things, or hard work. We make sure she knows when we're working hard, or trying and failing, or upset, and really show her how we deal with it. Daddy keeps trying to win that game and even when he doesn't and gets angry, he doesn't yell or throw things, but he might take a break and come back later. Mummy might screw up the new recipe and get angry, but she doesn't throw it out (unless it's awful) and she always tastes it, and talks about what she might try next time to fix it. She sees the hard work that we do - be it my PhD, or yard work, or kneading bread. Those things are the fabric of her day so even though she still gets upset that the words don't look the way she wants them to, she knows she can try again.

As far as the embarrassment thing goes, we're probably going to settle on "people laughing at you is not a reason to do or not do things" because one cannot predict why people are going to be bullies* and what they will laugh at. So positing it as both immutable and a reason to avoid things is unhelpful to her as a growth mechanism. That and "people who laugh at you for trying are jerks".

Struggling to read in kindergarten is the norm, not something to be rectified or a symptom a child is not intelligent. Giftedness doesn't track terribly well from that young.
posted by geek anachronism at 8:57 PM on September 10, 2013

I am like your daughter. I've been like that since a kid and I'm still like that.

We have always been very very careful to praise effort rather than achievement and emphasize working at things, sticking with things and practice.

I know that you're trying to be encouraging but as a perfectionist, I hate it when people congratulate me on my effort. My effort means nothing to me if I didn't do anything substantial with it. Instead, praise her achievement. It might not be a lot, but it's a lot for her and she deserves recognition for whatever it is that she did, even if it's only five minutes of reading.

Convince her that she's doing good for herself. Tell her not to worry about other people because we're all good at different things. If she's not good at reading, but she learns a new word today, that's good enough for her. Basically, teach her to value her work in terms of herself rather than comparing it to others. If she's not good at drawing, then as long as she tried her best, her picture is perfect for her. I don't know if that makes sense, but this attitude helped me get past failure.
posted by cyml at 9:05 PM on September 10, 2013

Another thought, now that I'm home and have had time to think...

Start getting specific about qualities in her that you want her to see value in. For example, you could say, "Today I noticed that when you didn't get your drawing just right the first time, you tried again without getting frustrated. I admire that in you." Don't ever say, "I like it when you _______." If she is already showing perfectionist tendencies, her value of herself needs to come from within, not from you.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:23 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Did your daughter specifically want the "best" drawing? I was like that as a kid (and today), and she might just have a really competitive spirit.

What helped me was to have an appropriate place to channel that competitiveness/aggression/spirit -- meaning, sports. I didn't discover organized sports until high school, when I (of course) was trying to resume pack...but they were amazing. The structure, the physical exhaustion, the coach guiding us, the literal point scoring (and the team spirit, matching uniforms, traditions -- I'm not an anti-social wildebeest) were amazing for me.

Five is pretty young for organized sports, but if your kid is a fighter, do give her a place where it's OK to fight. Otherwise that spirit is just going to get misdirected into generalized anger and/or covert competition against her classmates.
posted by rue72 at 9:35 PM on September 10, 2013

I have a friend whose 5 year old daughter is exactly the same (if not more so) and both parents are admittedly perfectionists. They say they don't explicitly place high expectations on her, so it's possible it's genetic and their daughter (and yours) was just born that way.

But I think it's also possible you (and they) may be doing some things unconsciously that contribute - it's easy to imagine in NYC, with all the competition to get into the best schools, that parents absorb some of that environment and project it onto their kids.

As for a solution, how about you model the beauty of imperfection for her? For example, draw something that looks very mediocre, and laugh about it, make it fun, admit it's not great but that it made you very happy to draw it. Do all kinds of self-deprecating things. Be a klutz. Sing songs off key. Make fun of yourself. Make making fun of yourself a fun and funny thing to do. My daughter is also five and I do those types of things all the time, and seeing what a happy and fun-loving screw-up I appear to be (even though she knows I'm joking), she probably thinks not being a perfectionist is a lot of fun (while at the same time knowing that there are times when you have to be serious and really try hard to do your best). I don't know if that would work with your daughter, but it might be worth a try. (My daughter goes to a Montessori school, and you might find that an education with a self-directed approach might suit your daughter better because the expectations are more internal and the rewards more intrinsic).
posted by Dansaman at 10:57 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know how relevant or applicable this is to you, being in new york, and all. My father was a teacher, and something I didn't appreciate very much at the time, but do now, was the amount of sheer work I was given as a kid.

We lived in the country, and had a farm, and my father was unquestionably a workaholic and there were always lots of jobs to do. I was expected to do my share as well. The jobs were not difficult, per se. Just hard work, really (e.g picking strawberries, helping round up the cattle, digging weeds out or mowing). But I think doing a lot of those jobs as a kid helped me to internalise that sometimes doing something was actually the most important thing. These were things I could do by myself, often at my own pace, and would be rewarded with praise or whatever when I was finished, praise for finishing, not for quality etc. So I had a lot of things I could do with no expectation, standard, or anyone else doing it but me.

The other thing was, my dad in particular modeled a lot of.... well, a lot of half-arsed work I suppose! He was most definitely not a carpenter, veterinarian, landscaper, hairdresser (ye gods...), but would assume these roles all the time and do a better or worse job of it. My mother likewise was an uncomfortable swimmer and was often learning various hobbies when I was a kid, so I got to see that learning is a lifelong practice that everybody does, and also really saw (and I think internalised) that initial, fumbling practice yields rewards. My parents (dad in particular) were also merciless with self-pity, expecting that I would get up and give something a go, then cajoling, then demanding... They were more strict in this regard than I plan to be with our daughter.

So I don't know if it's helpful, but perhaps demonstrating learning, practice and ole-fashiong being-shit-at-something with her, around her, etc might be helpful. Additionally, I think the negotiation, the breaking down of binaries etc mentioned above would be great.

Best of luck, I was a child-carer for many years, and I can tell you how competitive some parents (and their poor children) can be. It's difficult when your kid is in a high-performing environment, you can feel like you only have so many hours in the day to counteract negative messages they are getting from peers etc when they are at school.
posted by smoke at 12:32 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I understand and accept that you strive to raise your child without applying pressure to excel. Unfortunately your child has started school and thus has joined an enviieonment where there are such pressure and furthermore the child will pay more attention to that environment than to the home. Being in a talented and gifted group will only make the pressure more intense. I would ditch the gifted scheme for starters and look around for a school that genuinely values effort over achievement. If that isnt possible maybe you can persuade the new teacher to helpmreinforce your values. That is a long shot mind That said, a lot of us have thriv3d after abhard tome in a competitive environment with an overwhelming urge to win. Good luck.
posted by BenPens at 1:38 AM on September 11, 2013

Yeah, I was your kid, too. Most things came easy to me, and I avoided the things that didn't. Editing my own work is still painful, even though I've managed to make my peace with it. Mom made me memorize the Serenity Prayer, and hung it on an ornamental plate in my room.

Trying to think back what she would have done in this particular situation, I think she probably would have said something like, "Why do you think it won't be the best? It might be, and you won't know until you see everybody else's." Or she might have brainstormed ideas with me; I agree with misanthropicsarah that the open-ended natre of the assignment could be pretty stressful to some kids, me included.

We picked more of an enrichment program than an accelerated program for her, because neither my husband nor I really believe in pushing or pressuring kids

Speaking as a former Your Kid whose parents constantly advocated a similar philosophy to anyone who would listen, I'd like to offer my perspective, if it's not too much of a derail. As a kid who didn't want to do anything that didn't come easily to me, I really would have benefited IMMENSELY from a little pushing. I coasted through K-12 with almost no effort as a straight A student and basically an autodidact. I read ahead in my textbooks and paid as little attention as I could get away with. To an outside observer I was a prize pupil, but I might just as well not have been there. I never learned how to study or to challenge myself or set goals, and it's made my post-educational life difficult. Some kids need and want to be pushed, just as much as some kids don't.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:36 AM on September 11, 2013

Response by poster: The Underpants Monster (and anyone else), do you have any advice on walking the line between pressure and positive encouragement when it comes to challenging your kids? Because I was basically you as well (cruising through school) except I didn't really avoid the stuff I wasn't good at because I didn't care that much. That's the disconnect that's failing me when I'm trying to see where my daughter is coming from. If there was something that I wasn't actually good at, I'd just do a crap job and go off and play. (like you, I had to learn good work habits etc. as an adult).
posted by gaspode at 6:44 AM on September 11, 2013

There is a lot of new research coming out right now based on Carol Dweck's initial research on the "Growth Mindset." This is in contrast to the "fixed mindset." The fixed mindset is stuck on the perfecting the final task and an inability to bounce back from failure - where failure is in the mind of the person. (Sound like someone you know?)

I'd highly recommend Dweck's book "Mindset".
posted by frizz at 7:19 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is a quick graphic on the fixed vs growth mindsets.
posted by frizz at 7:21 AM on September 11, 2013

Best answer: I like the CBT-based advice above, and would also suggest that as a longer-term plan you help her understand that for some things, there really is a strict binary between "done" and "not-done" wherein "best" has no meaning. Some days all that gets me to do a given task is a mental reminder that however sloppy or unimpressive I suspect my performance will be, leaving it not-done would be the true failing. For drawing homework in Kindergarten, I'd be surprised if they had any benchmark besides "did it", so all she has to do -- all she can do -- is collect that star sticker. There simply are no bonus points available for "best". (Make sure this is quite true though. I was once lied to on this front and it burned me for years. That doesn't mean the concept isn't valid, just that it doesn't always apply.)
posted by teremala at 7:52 AM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

So you have a drama queen, call her on it, then refocus her back to the task at hand.

"Okay Sarah Bernhardt, enough of the hystrionics. Once you're calm we'll tackle this together." Then sit down and talk about the assignment calmly. She may not, in fact be worried about her picture being the best, she may be worried about WTF the assignment is, and she's not able to cop to it. Honestly a picture showing good behavior? I'M not even sure what that would look like!

So let her get away from it for a minute, let her play a game, or go out and romp with the dog or just do some physical activity to shake off the yukkies, then sit down and work with her on it.

I used to hate homework because it was lonely. I also hated practicing my flute because of the aloneness of it. Sometimes you just want some company. (and NOBODY wants to be with you when you practice your instrument.)

Don't read so much into everything your kid does. Just address the actual situation.

1. The tantrum.

2. The work.

Most people like to do things that come easily and don't like to work on stuff that doesn't. That's the human condition! She'll get the reading in time. But it may never be her thing, and that's okay. Your kid doesn't have to live up to your expectations.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:00 AM on September 11, 2013

Response by poster: Great, thanks folks. A good few suggestions here. I'm going to mark it resolved.

Although further ones gratefully accepted!

Though please let me reiterate: we are not concerned about the reading, or modeling her in a particular way. That was just an example of her behavior. We are concerned with finding ways to help her manage her emotions around this whole thing.
posted by gaspode at 8:15 AM on September 11, 2013

The first few years of school are really about learning how to learn, which is tough and kind of vague. So some of her stress may be relieved by explaining exactly what is being asked of her and why. For the drawing assignment, for example, you may want to say something like, "The teacher isn't asking you to draw this picture because she wants to see how good an artist you are. She's interested in finding out how well the class has learned the classroom rules so she knows if she needs to go over them again. Can you think of one of the rules? A stick figure of someone raising their hand is just fine. She just wants to know that you know to raise your hand when you want to speak." Then, over time, move to helping her figure out that kind of information for herself.

As for the reading, she may need a different approach than "sound it out." That's not how I read or how my kids read. They're sight readers, who memorize some words then kind of reverse-engineer new words based on the words they already know. (Hope that makes sense. Not sure I explained that well.) They always found "sound it out" extremely frustrating. So if we're reading and my 6yo comes across a word like "brother" and can't recognize it, first we'll just ask him to take a guess, then we'll build off that. "Ooo...'bother' is very close. Just one letter different. What would 'bother' sound like if you put an R in there? You've seen this word. It's on one of your t-shirts. Yes! Brother!"

It also helped a lot to kind of come at it sideways and find reasons to make him read without realizing it. We stopped reading menus to him and he figured it out. I'd let him play computer games while I was making dinner so he had to grapple with the directions himself. I'll ask him to grab me things that require him to read labels. ("Close! That's cumin. I asked for cinnamon. They have a lot of the same letters, though. Can you please put this back and bring me cinnamon?") He's an excellent reader now, but it took some trial and error to figure out what approach he needed.
posted by jrossi4r at 8:21 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is (was) my daughter. I look at it as a temperament thing, something very basic and inborn, and probably related to being gifted. I know it's really tough sometimes. I'll tell you a little about my daughter and see if it helps. It's funny you mention the drawing because that would be exactly the kind of thing that would frustrate her to no end (and it still does sometimes). I was told that it's because she has in her mind's eye what she wants to draw, but her motor skills do not allow her to do what she was picturing. In my daughter's case, this was true--her fine motor skills were not good and her drawings were very scribble-y (if you compared it to other kids) and she probably knew it too. Because she thought she was "bad at drawing" she just would never do it and if she did, most of the papers would be crumpled up in tears and frustration. She later received some OT for her motor skills and that's not uncommon in kids with high abilities in other areas. Things just all develop at different rates. I'm not saying your daughter needs OT, but she could have an idea of what she wants to do and it's extremely frustrating to some kids that they just can't do it. I think you just have to acknowledge that it is extremely frustrating and that it's ok to take a breather break, or run around the yard 3 times, it's ok to do it YOUR way, it's ok to just get it done and get it over with, it's ok to do it all in purple crayon or special erasable pen, whatever you think is going to get her over the hump. (Special tip: My daughter likes these pens better than pencils because they erase very cleanly. She erases A LOT and it doesn't leave messy pencil eraser marks). I emphasize just trying and tell her that she's trying her best and that's great. Keep practicing whatever you want to be good at.

I love the idea above to approach things from a different angle. For my daughter, anything that would be mischievous and funny would get her going: "Let's draw a picture of the worst classroom behavior ever!! Look, Isabel's got the trashcan on her head!" Also, extreme cuteness appeals to her: "Let's draw a kitty in a snow hat raising her hand." Sometimes I would say that there are no mistakes in art. Keep messing with it until you like it. Mess it it into something even better. Your daughter might be too young for this but I also got her this book a couple of years ago: Wreck This Journal.

Another thing about the reading. Like your daughter, my daughter was not reading entering kindergarten at 5, not even a word. While other kids were reading Magic Treehouse chapter books, my daughter was still struggling with "pan man can" etc. I never said a word or made her try to sound things out. I just kept reading books to her at night and let kindergarten teach her. I wanted to keep reading as fun as possible. I don't know how it is for most kids but for mine, it was really amazing once something "clicked". For my daughter, it was like she went from reading picture books to reading Mrs Piggle Wiggle within a year.
posted by biscuits at 3:40 PM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

My daughter isn't exactly a perfectionist, but she prefers not to do things that require learning new skills. One of the things I've done with her is try to remove my praise of her scholastically for the most part and encourage her to find what she likes and doesn't about her own work. When she brought handwriting sheets home (where you, say, trace and then write the letter A several times) I'd ask her to circle her best A. Sometimes she would say she liked this and that one best, but that one was too wobbly. Or this A is too far off the line. Sometimes I point out things that are well done, if she's having a hard time seeing it, but mostly I try to just let her see how well she's doing all on her own, and figure out herself what she wants to work at.

If she's refusing to read to you (and it's part of her homework) see if you can read it to her first and then have her read it to you. (That was one of the strategies my daughter's teacher gave us last year and it helped tremendously.) Do the minimum of reading homework that's required each day and then just read fun things to her. Admit that it's not fun to struggle with learning to read and she just needs to plug away for awhile until she gets to the fun part. (And once she can manage some short words and has a little reading stamina, try Mo Willem's Elephant & Piggie books. They were the first books my daughter could read to herself that she actually really loved and requested more of.) My daughter has always loved books and could never have enough of us reading to her, but learning to read was a slog. Now that she can read, she's happy with it again.

Another thing, I was told it takes about six weeks to adjust to going to school all day. So if the Pre-K was less than full day, she may just be exhausted.
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:02 PM on September 11, 2013

Because I was basically you as well (cruising through school) except I didn't really avoid the stuff I wasn't good at because I didn't care that much.

She might actually be good at it (or at least, she thinks she understands it), but gets confused when it's presented as something she's not supposed to know, or something she's supposed to be learning, or something that's supposed to be a challenge. You knew you weren't good at some things, so there wasn't a point to avoiding them, but if she thinks she does understand them, then it's harder to concede?

I mean, I know this thread is full of folks projecting onto your kid, and that's a bit weird, but "when I was your kid" what was confusing was the assumption by teachers/adults that I wouldn't understand something, when I already did. It being posed as a lesson or challenge filled me with self-doubt and made me think that the thing I thought I understood must be SO MUCH HARDER than I thought it was, and I must be so wrong/dumb that I couldn't even grasp what might be challenging about it. Which was compounded by the fact that the standards for a kid "understanding" something are so low/forgiving that no matter how often I did something well or got the right answer, it seemed so arbitrary that it must be an accident: I must be missing important details of the solution, or some crucial aspect of the problem that was conceptually deeper. It couldn't possibly be so easy, you know? It made no sense at all, so I was constantly imagining/speculating (and trying to fulfill) these additional, unrealistic rules/expectations that would explain why everyone else thought something was hard.

I don't know if it's the same with her, of course, or how you'd address it, if it were. My earlier suggestion is a distraction tactic I only learned after college, when I realized that I saw/understood more (or differently?) than people expected me to. Once I understood that I was inventing expectations, I figured I might as well have fun with them, which made it easier to occupy my brain and to understand and meet whatever real expectations were being imposed.
posted by unknowncommand at 10:31 PM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

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