Q: My 6-year-old son is a bright, happy kid, and although he is not a perfectionist, if he can't do something right the first time, he tends to cry, sulk and give up. For example, he asked me for help writing the letter S. I showed him how, then he tried, but it was backward. Before I could even say anything, he got up, crumpled the paper and stormed off, saying he would never be able to write. He hasn't wanted to practice again since. They did an "I Spy" game during his virtual instruction, and when he didn't get it right the first time, he refused to play the next time they did it. He couldn't do a cartwheel the first time, and he has never tried again. We have talked about practice and how some things are easier than others, and we told him that the whole point of being a kid is to learn how to do things. Do you have any ideas for him, and how we should react when this happens? Ignore it, console him, other options? Thank you!

A: Thank you for writing; you may be surprised to learn that dozens of parents contact me about their “quitter” kids. So many, in fact, that I often wonder if this is an issue in the child or something that has sprung up in our modern parenting culture. Were there parents in caves, sitting on rocks, exasperated that their children would refuse to skin the squirrel? I suppose it doesn’t matter, but pondering these thoughts does lead me to one question: Whose problem is this?

Since reading your note, I’ve been reflecting on the difference between being a perfectionist and being a quitter. A perfectionist is someone who strives for excellence (great!), yet cannot tolerate the discomfort of falling short of perfection. Perfectionists have an “all-or-nothing” perspective, and because life is hard, quitting seems to be the best way to handle imminent failure. But failure is the blessing that breaks us down and then increases our resilience and allows us to keep going. So, how do we react to your son’s perfectionism? (Yes, I think he has some perfectionism.)

It is useful to ask yourself some questions before you choose a reaction: Has my son been like this since he was born, or is this a recent development? Is this related to the quarantine, which has turned many children’s worlds upside down? Does your son have an undiagnosed learning issue? Learning disabilities can be easily missed and often show up as anxiety, perfectionism and quitting, and many parents misread these kids’ resistance to “try again” as an inherent character flaw.

As you take a closer look at who your son really is, let’s also take stock of your parenting life. To walk this out a bit, you are reacting to your son’s reactions, and that is an exhausting way to parent. I don’t know why, but your son’s limbic system — the part of the brain that handles emotions and memories — is highly threatened by even the thought of failure. So without him consciously thinking about it, quitting feels like his best option when failure looms. Because he isn’t aware of this dynamic, your reactions are either feeding or relaxing the alarm that causes him to shut down. For instance, he wanted to write the letter S. He saw it in his mind’s eye, and he wanted it to be right the first time, because this is how children typically think and feel. As soon as the letter started to come out wrong, your son’s brain went into a panic. That failure makes him feel vulnerable, quitting feels safer and not trying again is the best way to avoid future pain. Because you have a big, logical parent brain, you talked to him about practice, told him that some things are hard to learn, etc. You aren’t wrong, but your son cannot hear your reasoning because of his big emotions. And on we go. Emotional response from him, logical response from you, lather, rinse, repeat.

As maddening as this may feel, you may want to simply stop. Stop pushing him to make repeated attempts at things (for a while), and stop remarking when he reacts poorly to mistakes. There will be a time when you speak to and help him, but I am curious about what will happen when you remove yourself from the equation.

In the meantime, model making mistakes yourself. Consciously make a typical mistake and narrate your reaction.

“Darn! I just spilled the coffee on my T-shirt because I was rushing. I hate it when I do that.”

(Take a deep breath.)

“Okay, I am going to stain-treat this, put on a new shirt and move a little more slowly. Mistakes happen!”

Make a practice of going through your emotions so your son can watch. And when he has a big reaction to not being able to do a cartwheel, for instance, you can do a few things. You can stay silent, because your logic doesn’t help, or you can agree with him that cartwheels are hard to do and frustration is an appropriate response, or you can tell a story about how hard cartwheels were for you, too, when you were his age. All three responses make room for emotions, and that’s what we are going for.

Take a look at how long this has been happening and whether there are any underlying issues contributing to his quitting. And try to concentrate on emotions rather than logic. Good luck.

And P.S.: Almost every child is quitting lessons and whatnot after sitting on a computer for hours (or minutes) during quarantine. This is age-appropriate; don’t hold it against him.

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