Davidson Institute for Talent Development
This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Elizabeth Meckstroth, who offers insight into perfectionism by outlining several valuable parenting strategies for dealing with profoundly gifted children who demonstrate perfectionist tendencies.
Editors Note: The following is a synthesis of information provided to parents from an online seminar on the subject of perfectionism and the profoundly gifted child.
There is a continuum of definitions and values for being perfectionistic. Some are encouraging and inspire. Some are situation based, meaning that one person places more value on a project than does another. In our discussion, we focus on learning ways to help our children counter the self-defeating aspects of inappropriate, unrealistic high expectations they impose on themselves that often result in refusing to participate and devastation.
As parents, our behavior models are the most potent teaching. What we are speaks so loudly, they can't hear what we say. What we do imprints our children the same way they learn to speak our language. So with any of these ideas, the most viable way to integrate them into your children's practice is to demonstrate the optimum behaviors and attitudes. This means that you say your thought processing out loud. Let them hear you mentally thinking through a project step-by-step.
Here are some basic ideas for parents to help children achieve what they intend and to help them accept and learn from their attempts. Essentially, focus on process rather than product.
Reward trying:"Just do your best" can be discouraging. If we say, "It's OK how it turned out, as long as you did your best," we imply that this project represents their best effort. Instead, reward trying; "Do your best" can be damaging. Not everything is worth what it takes from us to do our best. Encourage children to try a skill without being committed to high performance. Sometimes, its worth is the learning experience. This is an attitude we can model. Let your child hear you say, "done is better than perfect" or "that will do for now."
Convey courage: "I know you can try it!" Transformation comes by trials. Break the task down into small, attainable goals: This is essential! Sense of failure comes from inappropriate goal setting. Recognize each component of progress. "Inch by inch, it's a cinch. Yard by yard it's hard." Learn to play two measures a day. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you turn a battleship? One degree at a time.
Acknowledge learning: Ask, "what did you learn while you were doing this?" or "what might you try next time?" or "how might you do it differently next time?"
Expect progress, not perfection: Remind your child about the time she didn't know how to count to 100 or make change and how she kept trying and practicing a few numbers at a time and now it's easy! Adept children especially need to know the benefits of practice and persistence.
Applaud persistence: Tell children that successful people keep on working at something even when it's hard to do and their efforts are not immediately rewarded. Help them read biographies of people who who made a significant accomplishment in the child's interest area or biographies of well know people, like Edison.
Discover meaning and enjoyment: "What were you thinking about while you decided which colors to use?"
It is important to note that a significant part of "perfectionism" is an attempt for a child to control their life. Nancy Robinson and Paul Janos found that gifted people express independence and manifest their need for self-control through curiosity, experimentation, exploration, and risk-taking. Their research consistently supports that gifted children of all ages exhibit the following characteristics, which tend to be more obvious in boys than in girls: self-sufficiency, independence, autonomy, dominance, individualism, self-direction, and nonconformity. In a family, it is likely that there is a household of people vying for self-control!
When working to achieve their goals, gifted people show more persistence, perseverance, energy, enthusiasm, vigor, striving, and sacrificing. The key words here are "their goals." The crux of control is being aware that you are making choices about yourself. Ownership begins when a child chooses to do something. Then they own it. As parents, we want our children to have confidence that they can control themselves, yet they need to learn behaviors that will work for them, rather than against them. Children need to become aware that they always have choices about how they will react to a situation, even if they are limited to changing their attitude or ideas about a situation. Their astute awareness, vivid imagination, and excellent memory enable you to work with these control tendencies, helping them learn to make wise choices so that they feel good about themselves and their relationships.
When children have problems, they usually respond with some form of acting out or withdrawing. They haven't yet learned many coping mechanisms. Children must become aware that they always have choices over their behaviors and attitudes when they face challenges. They need to learn that their choices can work for them or against them. It is essential that they experience and see the connections between what they do and what happens to them. A child/person is empowered when they know that they have choices! Depression is from disempowerment. People who want to suicide basically feel that they have run out of choices.
Here are ideas to appeal to children's sense of control:
- Tell them what to expect.
- Allow lead time and give notice before an activity is to be started or terminated.
- Give explanations and reasons for processes and jobs.
- Separate parts of a situation and help them distinguish between which they have control over and which they do not.
- Teach and depend on shared control. Guide negotiation to a consensus on how children will cooperate and assume shared control.
- Define limits of possible choices. The consequences of each alternative need to be understood.
Creative decision making is a process you can model to help your children see options and have a sense of control over themselves:
- Analyze the problem situation: What is involved? Find the facts. What can you change?
- Define the problem: What would I like to be different? Who owns the problem? Be a solution finder, rather than a fault finder! Move from thinking about it to doing something about it.
- Brainstorm alternatives: How might I make that happen? List as many as you can, even get absurd. No criticism or judgment is allowed during this phase!
- Evaluate consequences: How might this work for and against me? For and against others?
- Allocate resources: What do I need to make this happen?
- Make a plan: What will I do by when? Create, small, attainable goals. Do it!
- Re-evaluate: What did I learn? How did it help? What might I try next time?