“That doesn’t matter. Draw me a Spinosaurus.”
I have never drawn a Spinosaurus. So I take a deep breath and carefully outline a bear-like creature with a turtle shell on top, hoping he won’t notice.
But the little fellow greets it with “No, no, I do not want a bear with a turtle shell! Draw me a Spinosaurus.”
I make another drawing.
He looks at it carefully, then says: “No, this Spinosaurus is very sickly. Make me another one.”
So I make still another drawing. My son shakes his head at it, and says, his voice getting more tense with impatience: “You see yourself,” he says, “that this is not a Spinosaurus. This is a Stegosaurus. Spinosaurus was bipedal.”
I do my drawing over once more. But it is rejected, just like the others. “This one’s head is too small. It won’t be able to swallow its prey as it is supposed to.”
By now my patience is exhausted, and I am beginning to wonder which one of us will be the first to lose it.
This might be a scene from a famous fiction book, but it is also my reality. I don’t live with the “Little Prince,” but sometimes I feel like I do. I live with a highly sensitive perfectionist child who exists in his own world and has a very clear sense of what kind of sheep, Spinosaurus or other creature he would like to appear on a piece of paper. Only, unlike in the case of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s character, drawing a box with three holes in it doesn’t fly with this guy. Believe me, I’ve tried.
It’s hard when he asks me to do something, but it’s not much easier when he tries to do it himself. There he is, opening a new notebook that I just gave him. He loves notebooks and writing, so I thought I’d get him one. The first page gets torn out because he tried to write his name on it, and one of the letters was at a sliiiiightly different angle than others. The same fate is reserved for the next five pages. By the sixth page he has a full-blown temper tantrum, and I feel like I have to interfere and take the notebook away from him to save the rest of it so he can enjoy it later, when he is in a better mood.
Occasionally it’s cute and amusing, his perfectionism and this intense desire to follow pre-established rules and patterns. Like when we are in a zoo, and he takes with him a list of animals in the order he wants to see them, which he has compiled in advance. And because it’s just the two of us, I see no reason to not let him enjoy being in control this time. So we follow his order, even if it means that the viewing of a bear in one part of the zoo has to be immediately followed by the viewing of a lion at the opposite end of it (“Mama, don’t look at that chimpanzee, we have a lion next on the list!”). Or when he tries to make his bingo cards align with the hardwood pattern on the floor.
But more often it’s frustrating for everybody involved, and usually one or both of us ends up in tears. It’s not always clear how I should deal with these things. I know that his thoroughness and perfectionism are not bad qualities. On the contrary, they are excellent traits, a sign of his sensitivity and ability to think deeply.
The trick is to figure out how to to help him turn them into strengths rather than a source of frustration. I’m embarrassed to admit that often I can’t help but get incredibly frustrated with him myself, sometimes to the point of having my own tantrum. I also got into what I first thought was a helpful habit of rescuing his things from him, by taking them away at the first sign of an impending tantrum.
But I’ve learned a few things along the way, and got better at dealing with it. Each time it happens, I try to remind myself that it’s not my tantrum but his. That the way I relate to him in these moments is the way he will relate to himself in the future. And I don’t want him to get frustrated and yell at himself in his head, because that will only make things worse. I want him to learn to listen to his emotions and to recognize when he is about to lose his temper. I want him to be able to give himself a mental hug, to remind himself to take a break, to be kind and patient with himself.
“Mommy is an artist, not a computer, remember?” I say the next time he hands me a piece of paper and asks me to draw or write something for him. He nods. “Mummy is not a computer, mummy is an…” “…artist” he concedes. This is me trying to prepare him for the unpredictability of life. For the inevitable reality that what I end up drawing won’t be the exact copy of what he has in his head. Then I make him decide in advance whether he is willing to live with my imperfect Spinosaurus or draw his own imperfect Spinosaurus, or just not draw one at all. This significantly diminishes the frequency — and certainly the intensity — of his tantrums. And, hopefully, it prepares him for the fact that life will never be perfect, no matter how well he plans.
Most importantly, I have stopped trying to save him from himself. If he tears another notebook and then gets upset about it, that’s okay, it’s not the end of the world. Sometimes you just need to go through a certain number of torn notebooks to learn about yourself.
It’s more important that I teach him to recognize when it’s time to take a break and do something else. These days, when I see him start losing his temper, I ask if he thinks it’s time for a break. Often he says no, but sometimes he asks me to take whatever he’s doing away from him so he doesn’t break it, or tear it apart.
Very occasionally, but more and more often, he puts it away and decides to take a break. It’s a slow learning process, for both of us, but we are getting there.
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