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."
Dare Not to Compare
It's natural to want to know how your child is doing in relation to her classmates or even siblings -- after all, you've probably been making comparisons since she was born. But try not to talk about it in front of her. When you say things like "Your painting was the best at the open house," or "Jamie learned how to ride her bike without training wheels when she was your age," you're simply fueling your kid's desire to do things perfectly. Sure, you need to know if your kid is on track developmentally, but save your comments for your child's teacher or pediatrician.
Keep It Real
If your child thinks she should be able to get the hang of a sport or grasp a new math concept the first time out, she's setting herself up for disappointment, says Dr. Borba. Use your family's experiences to help her understand that even people she admires weren't always as good at something as they are now. For instance, encourage your kid to ask her T-ball coach how long he's been playing the game. Or talk to the dentist about how many years of school it took to get his degree. Also pick up a few kid-oriented biographies at the library. Two good picks to read along with your child: You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! and Who Was Walt Disney?
Finger-painting, Legos, Play-Doh, sand art, and other open-ended projects are ideal for helping young perfectionists chill out. Because there's no right or wrong result, these activities foster something that's important for all children to learn: There are usually many different ways to do things.
Point Out Your Own Imperfections
If you tell a kindergartner that he can't be perfect, he'll take it personally. He doesn't realize that you mean no one can be perfect. To help him understand, note your own goof-ups, like when you accidentally spill the juice or forget to put something on your grocery-shopping list. "It's helpful for kids to see that everyone makes errors," says Dr. Stavinoha. Then model how to deal with your gaffes because children will watch your reaction. "Rather than getting upset about something that went wrong, convey to your child that mistakes are just part of learning," says Dr. Grolnick. "Point out what you could have done differently so it won't happen again." It will take a while, but eventually your child will copy your reaction and not get so flustered or frustrated when something doesn't go the way he'd planned.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Parents magazine.