I recently ran into my former high school English teacher at the airport. We chatted in the moments before boarding, catching up on life, teaching, and family matters. He then asked, “What are two things I should know about your daughter right now in this moment?”
Minor pause for a mental scan of all of the incredible things she is, does, says, and knows. I come up with the following: she is a comedian, and she is a perfectionist.
His reply was simply, “I wonder where she got that from?” followed by a hefty elbow nudge.
The truth of the matter is that I am a perfectionist and always have been. You may be interested to know that this does not impact all portions of my life; if you don’t believe me, all you need to do is look at the status of my hardwood floors. But, I am a stickler for organization, timeliness, and schedules and follow a strict, no-nonsense attitude when it comes to attention to detail.
In many occasions, having this perfectionistic trait this comes in handy: throwing a party, traveling on an airplane, organizing teams of people, working as a teacher. Notice parenting did not make the list. Parenting is not a perfectionist’s sport of choice. The role of the tiny human is to simply be a kid. They do as their little brains tell them to, not what reason, or schedules, or organization dictates.
Over the course of time that my daughter has been around, I’ve had to ease up on many of my tendencies to a more go-with-the-flow attitude. As any parent can tell you, it’s not always possible to get out the door on time or to make advance plans that actually stick. Why? Because kids.
Passing the Genes
Around the time my daughter turned two, I started to notice that she was exhibiting some incredibly perfectionistic behaviors. One time at parent-tot preschool, she spent the entire free playtime organizing a bin of plastic teddy bears by size and color. Her teacher was in awe to the point when another child wanted to join in, she stopped him and said, “We’re going to let her finish this project.” I just shrugged my shoulders and thought, isn’t this how all kids are?
Apparently this is not how all kids are. Not all kids worry about mixing paint colors by using the same brush. Not all kids set their dollhouse furniture up one time and never move it around again. Not all kids cry when the googly eyes accidentally spill over into the sparkle heart confetti container. But my kid does. Just when I thought I could relax a little bit and let this tiny human run the show, she turned into a rule-abiding, organizational powerhouse to an extent I could not believe. Learning to parent this type of child has been a lesson in strength and patience.
Play in Imperfection
Part of what makes a perfectionist child unique is that they are afraid of failing. They don’t like the feeling of getting it wrong, so they avoid it at all costs. I’ll use the example of learning to put shoes on. She tried a couple of times do to it herself, and after minimal success, she gave up out of frustration. For weeks following the initial tries, she refused to put her own shoes on because she didn’t want to get it wrong. After building her confidence back up again, I would make light out of things going wrong. “Oh that silly shoe wanted to sit on your other foot!” or “Those straps are being extra sticky today. Let’s use some magic to make it work!” My daughter found the humor so enticing that she started purposely putting them on the wrong feet and then correcting it herself.
Turn Frustration into Brain Power
There is one toy in particular that revs her perfectionism off the charts: The Peppa Pig Transforming Camper Van. This thing never sets up the same way twice, the door constantly falls off, and the characters don’t sit nicely in their little chairs. She could spend hours making sure every piece is set correctly only to send it off on a camping journey and have all the characters fall over. Let the frustration ensue.
Instead of throwing the whole thing in the garbage (which I have considered), I use it as a teachable moment. Not all toys are perfectly made, so we have be careful pushing the van around if you want things to stay in place. Sometimes you have to use your imagination because these little pigs don’t come with bendy arms to hold the steering wheel just right. And finally, my favorite: can you think of a solution to your problem? She’s gotten really good at using the Scotch tape dispenser to fix up the plastic vehicle, all with her own brainpower.
Pack your Patience
There are many times when I have to give in to my daughter’s perfectionistic tendencies and allow her to just be who she is. If that means it takes her 15 minutes to make a plate of pancakes, who am I to judge? Part of growing up and learning is having the ability to experience and try new things in her own time. If it takes my daughter five times as long to do one task because she’s striving for perfection, at least she’s still getting the practice and experience doing it on her own. This also means we have to start some tasks earlier than other families to ensure there’s enough time to get it just right. Of course we don’t always have time for these types of shenanigans, and I hurriedly do it for her.
While parenting a perfectionist child comes with a unique set of hurdles, I’ll consider myself blessed that for the time being everything is in its place, and even the art supplies are organized.