A few months into kindergarten last year, I thought that my son Darren's handwriting looked awesome -- so much better than the barely recognizable letters on his preschool papers. He had a different opinion: It was "terrible" because it didn't exactly match the examples his teacher wrote. I wouldn't have been as concerned about his criticism if it were an isolated incident. But just weeks before the penmanship problem, he'd had a melt-down when he couldn't remember all the stances from his first karate class. And when he recently had to draw a volcano for a homework assignment, he burst into tears and crumpled the paper because his rendition didn't "look like the ones on TV."
I chatted with Darren's teacher and a couple of child-development experts because I was concerned that his behavior might be a sign of low self-esteem. What I was relieved to find out: It's perfectly normal for some children his age to become obsessed with doing everything perfectly and start comparing themselves with their classmates, their teachers, and even you. "In kindergarten and first grade, many kids think there is one right way to do things, and everything else is wrong," says Peter Stavinoha, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children's Medical Center in Dallas. "They have a hard time understanding why they don't have the same skills as their classmates or even adults and why they can't master something immediately." So you have some explaining to do. Use these expert tips to help your mini perfectionist strike that delicate balance between striving hard and being too hard on himself.
Compliment the Process
Think about how you praise your child. Maybe you say things like, "Wow, I'm so proud that your team won the soccer game!" or "You tied your shoes perfectly." When you constantly focus on the end result rather than the journey, your kid will think that success is what really matters to you, explains Michele Borba, Ed.D., Parents advisor and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Instead, help her realize that enjoying an activity and learning from it are much more important than winning or losing. Next time, emphasize your child's effort ("You're working so hard on drawing your picture for Grandma's birthday") or how much fun she's having ("It looks like you had a great time playing Chutes and Ladders with your friend"). It won't take long for your child to realize that playing for enjoyment can be just as much fun as winning.
Let Your Kid Make Mistakes
Darren writes his letters and numbers backwards once in a while. I used to point out the error immediately, but now I usually don't say a word -- even if the mistake is on a homework sheet that he has to hand in for school. "When you're always correcting your kid's mistakes, he'll think that you want him to be perfect," says Wendy S. Grolnick, Ph.D., coauthor of Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids. "On the flip side, if you allow your child to turn in schoolwork that is truly his own, he can get comfortable with constructive feedback from the teacher. That will help give him the confidence that he can succeed without your help."