What are the best practices for tackling perfectionism in young girls?
March 10, 2019 6:04 PM   Subscribe

Bright 3rd grader has a hard time not being perfect right away, despite our best efforts to normalize failure as a key part of success. How do I do a better job at parenting her through this?

Background: My 9 year old daughter is very advanced when compared to her peers,(we had her tested at the local university, she's getting accommodations at school) but struggles with not getting things right away. This is universal (home, extracurriculars, classroom, family and friends).

We have always praised hard work over being smart.
We talk about our own daily failues at work, home and with our loved ones.
We try not to be overly critical of her work-in-progress.
We value "brave, not perfect".

She is very risk averse, both physically and mentally.

Does anyone have parenting advice for us? She's a great kid; Always gentle, sweet and kind to others. I don't want her lifelong internal voice to be telling her not to try something new unless she can be the best at it instantly.
posted by Nickel Pickle to Human Relations (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe show her some of those “Girl learns to dance in a year, time lapse” videos, where someone videos themselves getting better at a skill over time? The woman who did the dancing one also did a Ted talk. She might be inspired by seeing people who sucked at first and then were clearly much more skilled after a defined point in time.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:11 PM on March 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am not a child psychologist, but I am way better at failure than many people, and a formative experience for me was going to a magnet high school where I was definitely mediocre. This was a place where sophomores did proof-based calculus (the "smart" kids were doing multivariable or complex analysis by then), published in real journals before graduation, brought home multiple medals from international olympiads every year, etc. Honestly, my first year at uni felt like taking a breather.

So, I'm not saying "set her up to fail", but...set her up to fail? Let her attempt something impossible, fail, and see that life continues and her family still loves her and the world didn't end.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:21 PM on March 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

Are you familiar with Carol Dweck's work? Sounds like your daughter has a fixed mindset. Dweck's book Mindset discusses this issue at length, and it might give you more ideas about how you can help her shift how she approaches her activities. I personally have found Dweck's worth incredibly meaningful.
posted by swheatie at 6:56 PM on March 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would humbly submit to you a possibility: in the course of all the best intentions to model for your daughter an acceptance of failure, she may instead be picking up, inadvertently, the sense that she must now also be perfect at being imperfect, at failing just enough or in just the right ways. If she already experiences the world pervasively in terms of perfect/not-perfect, she might end up applying that framing to any modeling/messaging she gets around how it's okay to fail; the perfectionism would, in a sense, co-opt any messaging against it, and would further strengthen her current patterns. My sense is that, generally, the brighter the kid, the harder it is to soften such perfectionism with explicit messaging/modeling.

So, what to do? Maybe: some way of landing the messages of "failing is ok" and "brave, not perfect" without using words, at the level of emotion and affect. You say she is very risk-averse - it sounds like she must feel like there's a lot at stake with every performance. So the next time she does fail - and I agree with meaty shoe puppet that you don't need to arrange that for her - but the next time she does fail, and you or co-parent are around, can one of you just be with her in her distress? Not reassuring her with the messages above, but also not leaving her alone with whatever terrible feelings she must be feeling - just mirroring and holding the intensity of that experience with her. When that lands, it communicates the idea that "failure is not a threat to you or your relationship with me" more powerfully than words or modeling ever could. It lands it deep in the body, and what we believe is always, at the foundation, inscribed in our bodies.

To be fair, this is often easier said than done. It might be that she reacts REALLY strongly to these situations, to the point that it'd be hard for you or any other adult to keep an even-but-present keel through it. And I don't know what else you have to get done in your life, so I also want to recognize that your adult obligations may leave you too drained too often to meet her where she needs to be met. It might be helpful to find a child or family therapist somewhere, but just to do a consultation (not therapy) on a one-off or two-off basis. No need to bring daughter into it at this point, especially if she already has accommodations (and presumably some services?) through school. Meet with that professional and run your situation by them, and see what suggestions they might have for you. Since they'd be in your physical community, they might also have some good local resources that us internet-folks couldn't really point you towards.

This is a tough situation, but your daughter is very lucky that you are looking out for her, in the present and the future. You're very right that it's no fun to go through life with that internalized voice in your head (ask me how I know), so I really am wishing your family the best.
posted by obliterati at 7:08 PM on March 10, 2019 [15 favorites]

My own experience was that as I became more aware of how I fell short from my own ideals, I started to avoid things I couldn't be good at. I was well into middle age before I had the self-confidence to do things badly.

I'm wondering if maybe your daughter might be willing to have competitions where you and she (and maybe others) tries to do things super badly. After a few trials at trying to do things "the worst", then maybe she would be willing to do them "just for fun", It needs to be something that is both fun and very low stakes. So - dancing to music, painting like a 3 year old, icing cookies, making sand castles, designing the worst/silliest zoo, creating designs with shaving cream, drawing with erasable markets (this is great on glass - super easy to clean and you can get really big and crazy.) Or another way to start might be take markers and draw an animal (do another task) like an expert and then draw the same animal like a "silly giwiliger" (a giwiliger is a family name of someone who is super, super silly) and then play with how can we make even MORE silly.

The idea is give her a safe space where her perfectionism can take a break and she can see how it feels to move outside of "success" and "failure".
posted by metahawk at 7:21 PM on March 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Cooking dinner on her own (with an adult monitoring) is a great safe place to fail. A truly bad meal can be binned with pizza ordered. Okay food can be discussed and improved. What's important is that she tries a recipe several times and she is the one criticising the meal primarily and figuring out how to improve it. And that her loving parents eat it with enthusiasm, around the crunchy burnt bits.

Eggs and sausages with toast on the side is an acceptable dinner. Salad and hot dogs. Simple pasta. Kids get a lot of confidence cooking.

My second grade perfectionist loved The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:25 PM on March 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Can you model enjoying something you're objectively not good at? My parents paid lip-service to the idea that one did not need to be perfect at things, and I absolutely believe they believed that, but I only ever saw them doing things they were good at. If you're not musical, pick up the ukelele and laugh at your mistakes. If you're not dance-y, dance to your favorite songs and laugh when you're un-coodinated. Etc. Model doing things you're not good at, acknowledging you're not good at them, and that you enjoy them even while being bad at them. "Enjoy" may be "It's fun even when I'm bad" or "I'm bad but I'm learning" or "It's fun to be bad at things," but there needs to be enjoyment.
posted by lazuli at 8:31 PM on March 10, 2019 [13 favorites]

For me, my perfectionism/ not doing challenging things was really more about tolerance building. Things came so easily that I have/had really strong feelings of frustration I didn't know what to do with or work through. I didn't tolerate that feeling very well so I avoided it. It wasn't that I really cared if I ever mastered the skill or not but getting through the frustration wasn't worth it for me . Doing hard stuff is also a muscle, and for someone who things that come very easily, facing resistance is like walking up steep hills when you never do that. Encourage breaks, taking her time, and coming back. It really gets easier with time. And, the outcome likely doesn't matter, it's the actual process of doing hard things.

Verbalizing this took way way way past my teen years.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:17 PM on March 10, 2019 [16 favorites]

Here's my response to a previous question which might be helpful to you.

I wonder whether it'd be helpful to introduce your daughter to more process-focussed activities rather than goal-focussed tasks. For example, maths problems with no solution or else many solutions, or engineering projects that focus on improving outcomes by tweaking the process. This may not be your child's experience, but if she's used to things being either right or not right and nothing in between, then she might benefit from loads of exposure to genuine ways in which this doesn't apply.
posted by mkdirusername at 10:28 PM on March 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Perfectionism can sometimes be a sign of anxiety - that angle might be worth exploring.
posted by Calzephyr at 2:10 AM on March 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

You say she’s getting accommodations at school; you might see if her teachers have suggestions. This is a pretty common problem with bright kids, I think, so hopefully a school that has a system in place for handling the academics has also given some thought to the emotional side. You may also want to check in about the messaging she’s getting there to make sure you are on similar enough pages about this.
posted by eirias at 3:10 AM on March 11, 2019

My work team is full of perfectionists and recovering perfectionists, so we explicitly call out what needs to be really good and what just needs to be done. We even have acronyms for it, to shorthand that this is a 'don't kill yourself' or 'good enough' situation.

At her age, she knows that some things are important to her and the people around her, but she may have trouble figuring out which ones. If you help her build a language around that categorization, she may be able to loosen her standards.
posted by oryelle at 5:54 AM on March 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Stuff that has helped with my bright anxious perfectionist 3rd grader:

Karate, or other highly structured/leveled physical activity with a really good teacher. The kid gets it hammered home at every lesson that the difference between the most advanced kids and most beginner kids is just the amount of time they've spent working on these skills. Everyone in the room is learning and everyone in the room is making mistakes and doing something that is difficult for them. He is able to shake off so many more mistakes than he could at the beginning.

Play therapy. We did this earlier in elementary school and it helped a ton.

This is a silly thing, but we've started giving him a high-five for making a mistake and telling us about it. He gets another high five for keeping his cool when making the mistake, and another one for asking for help. (If he gets all three, it's two high fives and a head bump.) He kind of rolls his eyes at us BUT getting an explicit tiny reward and reminder about failures every day seems to actually be working. (And now he asks us about our mistakes every day, which also helps to normalize it for him.) If he didn't manage any of those things, he still gets a hug.

Also, just in case you haven't heard this--we've had a few people at my kid's school say that 3rd grade seems to be an especially tough year for sensitive kids. Stuff gets a lot more academic, the expectations take a big jump up, there are a lot more x's on worksheets. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the work we're putting in this year will make next year easier.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:16 AM on March 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Is this thought pattern/ behaviour new?

I don't think you're doing anything wrong, but keep in mind that at school, she's surrounded by peers and teachers and may feel like their regard is tied to high achievement. Some of that can change, maybe.

Is there something in her life that makes her feel unsafe?

Are the accommodations a recent development? Does she like them? If so, does she know that those accommodations will continue to be in place even if she is not perfect? (Will they? Has someone suggested -- even implicitly -- otherwise?)

What does she say about this? What is perfectionism and risk-aversion giving her? She might not be able to tell you exactly, or she might fall back on giving you what she thinks is the "right" answer, but maybe seeing that you take her perspective seriously -- and not thinking that you view her experience as merely a problem to be solved (I'm not saying this is what you're doing, but it may be what she thinks you're doing when you're trying to reinforce process over outcomes and the okayness of making mistakes) might give you some insight into how to proceed.
posted by platitudipus at 8:31 AM on March 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

You talk to her about your own daily failures, but has she witnessed the process?
- Plan an elaborate dinner, screw up some essential step; laugh it off, and get food delivered or go out to eat.
- Try a new route, get lost; park the car and calmly figure out the right way to go.
- Realize you have the wrong supply for a project, go to the store to exchange it; do something fun on the way back, since you have the opportunity.

Think about how you respond to your own mistakes in real time, while in her company.

Also consider how parents treat each other as errors occur. At the adult, peer-to-peer level, you might be a little less gentle and let your exasperation show -- inadvertently giving your daughter the impression that is how you (and the grown-up world at large) really feel about failure.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:18 AM on March 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

What has she failed at? No 3rd grader can actually fail at anything IMO. The fact that "success" and "failure" are major parts of her emotional vocabulary at nine years old is the problem right there. As anecdata, my parents were relentlessly critical even as they insisted that I was the one placing all this pressure on myself. Your kid sounds very smart and sensitive. You sound very driven and achievement-oriented. She is definitely picking up on the cognitive dissonance.
posted by coffeeand at 10:22 AM on March 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Is she otherwise happy at school? I was very reluctant to do anything that would make me look stupid (in my mind) because I was being bullied quite a bit. So whilst that didn’t stop me from contributing in class if I felt I knew an answer it prevented me from asking any questions. Not that active participation in uncool subjects helped with my standing among my peers but at least I got adult approval.

Also, being reasonably good at academic learning I got away with doing very little in most subjects. So I was bad at PE, at music and arts and mediocre at Latin and maths and good at everything else. Both Latin and maths would have required more application or at least a willingness to do my homework reliably...maths was especially strange because for a few years all papers were 50:50 algebra and geometry- I aced the geometry because that just clicked and failed the algebra questions and just about passed the class.

Anyway, she could have many reasons for her reluctance to try things. I didn’t really start to appreciate that there is a lot to be said for a process, for asking for help and that there is nothing wrong with learning until I started to take on responsibility for others’ work and had to fix stuff in the middle of the night because somebody clearly had not understood and I was now up against a hard deadline...and I still get frustrated if I don’t get things immediately...although now I get over myself and find somebody who can explain.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:55 AM on March 11, 2019

We have always praised hard work over being smart.
We value "brave, not perfect".

even a girl who is relentlessly told what to value will at some point develop her own ideas.

keep on trying to adjust her attitudes, by all means, but take some time out now and then to praise her for asserting her consistent I in the face of all this we.

She is very risk averse, both physically and mentally.

physically, maybe. but how risk-averse can a child really be who's willing to defy her family's whole system of priorities and lets them see it?

(also, you think she's way ahead of her peers brain-wise. she knows you think this, she probably knows you think there's objective proof of it, and she knows you've taken steps to get her special accommodations for it, whatever you may say to her about how unimportant all of that is. this - being not just smart, but smarter than her classmates-- is a high implicit standard to live up to and not one she set for herself. hard work and bravery, the things the family values, didn't get her test scores that far above grade level. and you can bet she knows it. she may even be ashamed of it.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:34 PM on March 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

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