My neighbor's daughter seems like every mother's dream. This 9-year-old is fastidious about her appearance (color-coordinated barrettes with every outfit), keeps her room tidy as a monk's and takes French lessons after school (her own idea).
Neither of my children colored inside the lines, let alone color-coordinated their clothes. Their rooms could qualify for disaster relief. And after four months of language lessons (my idea), the only Spanish my daughter knows is "taco."
I admit it: I sometimes envied my neighbor and her apparently perfect little girl. But as I've observed this child over the years, I realize that my envy was misplaced -- I should have been feeling relief that for all the child-rearing issues I face, perfectionism isn't one of them. I've seen this girl sulk because she couldn't manage a figure eight her first time on the ice. I watched her moan and whine when she couldn't play a musical piece perfectly. Terrified of failure, she won't even attempt tennis or gymnastics.
Living with a perfectionistic child is hard work -- these kids often struggle with low self-esteem and can exhibit a range of behavior problems, from shyness to volatility, procrastination to anxiety.
What Is It? Webster's defines perfectionism as a "disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable." What constitutes perfection will vary from one person to another, but all perfectionists set lofty -- and often unattainable -- goals.
"Most of us carry negative voices, the `I should-have, could-have' voices that keep us from feeling we've done a good job," says Barbara Polland, a professor of child development at California State University, Northridge, and author of "The Parenting Challenge" (1994, Tricycle Press). "For most of us, these voices appear now and then, but in the perfectionist, the voices are incessant. They nag from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to bed."
Some perfectionists really look the part: They're meticulous and ambitious, and appear to excel in everything they do. But the child with average grades, a sloppy room and no extracurricular activities may also be a perfectionist. Both types set high goals, but one achieves them, while the other is often disabled by these inner expectations.
"I truly don't know how we survived Danny's preschool years," says Janet Chamberlain, a software engineer from New Boston, N.H. "His artwork was wonderful -- even advanced for his age -- but no matter how much we praised his work, all he saw was that he couldn't stay in the lines."
Carolyn Fries, a mechanical engineer from St. Petersburg, Fla., is another mom who has endured the trials of living with a perfectionist. If 7-year-old Zachary's Lego building doesn't turn out exactly the way he wants it, he'll destroy his creation, complaining that it's not right. Discouraged and demoralized, Zachary will then avoid building for several days.
Its Causes Researchers debate the origins of this trait. Is it nurture, nature or a combination? Those who promote the nurture theory say that parents unwittingly promote perfectionism by urging their children toward higher and greater achievements or by unconsciously withdrawing affection when the child falls short of a goal, notes Jeff Ashby, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Georgia State University.
We also may unwittingly encourage perfectionism when we castigate ourselves for messing up. Spilling coffee on your best suit may be aggravating, but it's not reason to call yourself an idiot -- especially if your child is within earshot.
Not surprisingly, birth-order experts like Kevin Leman, author of "The New Birth Order Book" (1998, Revell), believe that firstborn children are practically programmed for perfectionism. "These are the kids whose role models aren't older siblings, but adults," explains Leman. "They see life through the eyes of their parents," so their standards and expectations are naturally higher than those of other children.
Firstborn children also are the ones who get the most attention. "All that oohing and aahing adds up to one thing," he says. "Pressure."
Of course, not all perfectionists are firstborn children. Others theorize that perfectionism may be biologically determined. "But even in the case of a genetic predisposition toward perfectionism, there is room to influence personality if you start early," says Lawrence Shapiro, a Secaucus, N.J.-based child psychologist and author of "How to Raise a Child with a High EQ" (1998, HarperCollins).
The Price Not all perfectionists are like my neighbor's child. Some actually are successful and happy. Ashby calls these the "adaptive" perfectionists, people who wouldn't trade their high standards for anything: "They may want to modify their perfectionism in some areas, but may not need to in others.
"When the adaptive perfectionist meets her goals, she feels exhilaration, excitement," explains Ashby. "But typically all the maladaptive perfectionist experiences is relief. The feeling is, `Whew, at least I haven't proved myself to be imperfect this time.' Their identity is intertwined with how well they do."
Another key difference between the "healthy" perfectionist and the "unhealthy" type is that adaptive perfectionists understand that it takes hard work to do well; they'll study their history facts through the wee hours and when they earn an A-plus, they know they deserved it. The unhealthy perfectionist won't settle for anything less than an A, but doesn't always understand the link between hard work and achievement. This kind of perfectionist imagines that talent and skill are somehow innate, and success is an accident. The perfectionistic child's rigidity and brutal self-judgment can lead to a host of behavioral problems, including:
Anxiety. When Carolyn Fries's son practices cursive writing, "if one letter out of five is not just so, Zachary will erase the whole line and start over," she says. By the time he has finished, Fries can't tell the difference between her son's writing and the teacher's samples.
Perfect? Yes. But he pays a price for it. Driven by anxiety, perfectionists will labor for hours on the finest details, revising and redoing until they deem their work to be precisely right.
Some children withdraw when anxious. Others lash out. "In first grade, when my son was assigned one page of homework in a math book, he felt he had to complete the entire book -- now," recalls Judy Bailey, a lieutenant with the Nebraska State Patrol in Lincoln. Intimidated and agitated by self-imposed expectations, Bailey's son, Eric, now 11, would fly into a rage, biting and spitting at anyone who got in his way.
Procrastination. A child who would sooner reorganize his rock collection than write a book report may appear unfocused or lazy, but may in fact be a hard-core perfectionist. Perfectionistic children commonly protest and delay, rather than plunge into a new project, convinced that no effort could possibly match their expectations.
Fear of procrastination. It's a curious paradox: Perfectionistic kids often seem the most capable, yet they're also the ones most likely to shun new challenges, projecting ahead to failure even before they start. "My daughter, Torionna, has always been afraid to try new things," says Vicki James, an accounts receivable manager in Caledonia, N.Y. "She always feels she has to be perfect the first time."
An impulse to quit. Unlike Torionna, other perfectionists are willing to try new things . . . until they discover they're not the best at it. "If Danny starts something and realizes he's only average, he'll quit," says his mother, Janet Chamberlain.
Trouble with friendships. Fastidious types may have a particularly hard time being pals with kids who aren't especially orderly. "Pulling things off shelves, strewing toys around a room -- this is not the MO of the perfectionists," Polland notes. "Later, the child is likely to tell his parent, `That kid is sloppy. I don't want him in my room anymore.' "
Perfectionists also may have trouble with teamwork, which can be problematic in everything from lab projects to school plays.
How to Cope If your child is a happy, successful perfectionist -- the adaptive type Ashby has identified -- you probably should leave well enough alone. But for those struggling with the other variety, be assured that it's possible to modify, if not fully transform, the little perfectionist in your life.
If it's true, as psychologist Shapiro believes, that perfectionist tendencies show up as early as the toddler years, be on the lookout for red flags. Does your preschooler wreck her sand castle when she can't get the moat quite right? Does he squall when his chocolate cookie breaks into pieces?
Of course, this does sound an awful lot like typical preschooler behavior, but if you sense that your child reacts more intensely than his peers do, you may have a budding perfectionist on your hands. Here, experts and parents offer advice for helping perfectionists lower their standards, just a little:
Don't correct -- encourage. While this tip would apply to all children, it goes double for perfectionists. Remember that they're already their own worst critics; if they're trying hard, offer praise, not correction.
Show her that no one is perfect. Let your child see that everyone makes mistakes, and that it's normal. Ashby suggests you find a book your child has memorized, read it aloud and deliberately skip words; when she points out your error, acknowledge it and assure her it's not big deal. Or bake a cake and mess up the kitchen, suggests Polland. If tidying up the bedroom is a nightly ritual, try leaving the room messy occasionally.
Select and encourage an activity that your child truly enjoys. If you suspect that your child's self-esteem is tied to performance, choose just one sport or extracurricular activity he can excel at. Let him enjoy the sense of mastery and the ego boost that come with it. This means you may have to decline his request for Russian and music lessons if you think he's just setting himself up for unnecessary pressure, frustration and, ultimately, failure.
Focus on effort, not outcome. Remember that perfectionists operate under the misguided notion that success should come naturally and instantly. "So don't wait until the report card comes to begin monitoring work habits," asserts Shapiro. "Help your child learn good study skills." Praise her for starting homework on time, for concentrating, for practicing. "If you have a kid who practices ball in the back yard every day, that's the achievement. Praise your child for his persistence and effort." Show your child, in the most concrete terms possible, that success is no accident.
Clue in teachers. Let teachers know that your child tends to be a perfectionist. The teacher, undoubtedly, will have seen this behavior before and may have some strategies you haven't considered. You might also ask the teacher to remind your child, whenever possible, that school is a place where people come to learn things they don't know. These gentle reminders can go a long way toward easing the perfectionist's self-criticism.
Teach relaxation techniques. Since perfectionists tend to struggle with anxiety throughout their lives, Shapiro believes it makes sense to teach them stress-reduction skills while they're young. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and visualization are all ways to calm a child.
Whatever approach you take, always send a message of unconditional love, Ashby emphasizes. "Let your child know that your love is never tied to his performance. Tell him, `You are valuable and important, and I love you, no matter what.' " That's something any child would enjoy hearing, whether he colors inside the lines or not.