You may not think of your child as a “perfectionist”, after all, he may have a terribly untidy room or he may take little care in his writing when doing homework but perfectionist children aren’t necessarily “perfect in every way”. Sometimes perfection-ism only affects a small part of their lives. In any case, there are subtle signs to look out for.
Perhaps your child gives up easily, or with a tantrum, when his math homework gets too hard. Perhaps he tried to destroy his maths book. Maybe he scribbles out or glues the pages of his work together and starts over when he makes a mistake. Maybe missing the ball once in a ball game or getting out in a game of musical chairs or dodgeball is enough to make him throw up his hands and walk out of there.
These things don’t mean that your child is a perfectionist but they can suggest that he has some areas of pefectionist attitude.
Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a great quality to have because it can lead people to do their very best and to have very high standards. On the other hand though, when perfection is not easy to achieve, it can become soul-destroying.
Probability Goals for the Perfectionist
I often used to wonder why so many of the tests at school would offer different options. They would offer questions like, “Choose two out of these five topics and write an essay about them”. I chalked this down to teachers getting bored with reading the same essays over and over again. After all, surely it wouldn’t matter to the students who would either know the work – or not know it.
It turns out that this is a form of probability goal. It’s a method of giving a “perfectionist” student a way to dodge a completely unexpected question in an exam. If there was only one choice and it happened to be in an area where a student hadn’t studied, it could affect their mood for the remainder of the exam. Providing more than one option encourages them to choose something that they feel more comfortable with.
When I was scout leader, I noticed that a lot of the requirements were based around probability goals too. Most of the sections of their books said to “choose any three of the following five activities”. Even within questions, there were probability goals, “throw the ball and catch it on the return five times in a row”. A lot of the goals were also about self-improvement, “over the next few months, run 100 metres three times and beat your previous time”.
Probability Goals with the Perfectionist
If you have a child who frequently has meltdowns over homework or who gives up if they don’t get a perfect 10, then you could benefit from using probability goals. Instead of expecting perfection from them, try to get them to reach a certain target or to improve on their past work.
For example; suppose that your child simply won’t eat vegetables. You could give them five different veggies and tell them that they had to eat TWO in order to qualify for dessert. This gives them back a measure of control without giving in to them entirely. If they have a problem with a particular food, such as peas, you could tell them that they need to eat half – or you could choose a very small number, say four and very slowly increase that requirement over weeks of meals.
Develop Probability Goals during Homework for the Perfectionist
The same goes for homework. Your child’s teacher may set a lot of homework but different children work a very different speeds. At one point, we discovered that while our son was doing less homework than other children in his class it was taking him three times longer. His teachers wanted him to do more but naturally he was unhappy doing several hours of homework each night. Instead of trying to increase his homework, we determined how many hours of homework his teachers expected him to do per night and chose work which enabled him to reach that target while still covering the major areas of learning.
Clearly you can’t give your child a choice of subjects to work on, otherwise he’d choose the “fun” subjects like art and music all the time. Instead, give him a choice of work within subjects. For example, if his homework is a page of mathematics containing four sections of work, ask him to choose one or two and then move onto the next subject. You might also find that it helps to cover up the remainder of the page with blank strips of paper as this reduces information overload and makes the page look considerably less scary.
Of course, sometimes you’ll need to restrict your child’s choice, particularly if you notice that they’re deliberately avoiding a certain type of work every time. A good example of avoidance could be the child who avoids word or sentence based problems in maths. If these problems are always ignored, your child won’t develop the interpretation and coping skills required to answer them.
Inject Probability Goals in Sports for the Perfectionist
Probability goes can also be used for after school and weekend sports. If your child is uncooperative at a sport, don’t push for completion, simply push for a better result than last time. If he is playing a team sport and reserves are available, then you could try to get him to play for 5 minutes longer than last week. If he’s doing something individual, such as indoor rock climbing, you could use his previous height as a goal.
Above all, if he somehow smashes his previous record and can’t do it on subsequent tries, don’t try to force your child to repeat the performance. Instead, “lower the bar” and set an easier goal. This gives your child a way to work back up to their past achievement without too much pressure.
One area where probability goals frequently need to be set back is in swimming. Some children only take lessons in summer. It is unreasonable to expect that after the winter break they will immediately be able to resume swimming at the levels they reached the previous summer. The same goes for children who have a “scare” in the water.
Even if you child doesn’t succeed, try to find positives and use words like “good effort” rather than “better luck next time”.
After all, it’s so much better for your child to try and “fail” than to fail to try.