Perfectionism is the highest form of self-harm. You’ll never feel perfect, but you will always feel like a failure.
-Jennifer O’Toole, “The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules“
The other day, my son spent about 45 minutes using a set of really cool blocks to illustrate four different ways of adding up to twenty….and that three two times is the same as two three times or six one time. Somebody was pretty proud of himself.
When it was time to put everything away, he threw a block at the rest and knocked down the numberline. Now. Truth be told – it was really more of an impulsive move than anything else. He wasn’t crazy overwhelmed with frustration. Wasn’t acting out in defiance. He just kind of DID it – maybe even by accident (though I wouldn’t let him know thought so). Still, the pile of wooden numbers tumbled down, and he was going to have to set right what had gone wrong, even if it happened without premeditation. That’s just a natural consequence of life.
“Hey Mister,” I gently chided, “Is that how we treat our materials? C’mon now. Help clean these up so you can show the other cool things you brought today.”
But this is MY son. My I-made-a-mistake-and-now-must-be-banished-from-all-humanity son. Of my three kiddos, he’s the one who’s hardest on himself — who’s most likely to attach the value of his personhood to a particular performance, even though I constantly remind him otherwise.
So, even though the correction was mild and delivered with kindness, I wasn’t at all surprised that he was hiding in the corner of the room even before I’d finished speaking.
Fade to black. Insert lines from The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules — mantras that, even now, are steadily being delivered to this little guy in real-time. “Everything is hard before it’s easy,” he knows. “Almost everything is fixable.” “Mistakes aren’t blunders, they’re lessons in disguise.” All of that – very real – jazz.
Still….we, spectrumites are harder on ourselves than anyone ever can be. I knew the shame he’d felt stung. It had hurt. It was worth hiding from. For real. Even though the “mistake” was, to the rest of us, no big deal.
His mistake. My response. You know which is more important? Hint: it belongs to the person who really should know better.
So often, moms and dads react to their children’s behavior as if their own failures or successes are being judged by the world. OK. Maybe sometimes they are. But a lot of times they’re not. A lot of times, there’s compassion where we suspect evaluation….which is precisely the message we wish our kids would hear, yet we can’t hear it ourselves. Or, at the very least, we’re ALL too anxious to believe it.
Just the other day, I was on an airplane as a young mother struggled to hush her wailing toddler. No matter what she tried, he simply would not be calmed, and it was easy to tell from her tone that Mom was beginning to freak out – what would everyone think of her boy? of her? how had she suddenly become “that” woman with the screaming kid?
“Excuse me,” I called to her, leaning out into the aisle. “Ma’am? Excuse me?” The mother turned warily, probably expecting a complaint (as if she weren’t doing everything she could to quiet her child – as if she weren’t also getting aggravated by his shrill screams). “Would he like to play with this?” I reached out toward her, mini ipad in hand, a baby-and-mommy-animal matching game already opened and on-screen. Her anxiety melted, tears filling her scrunched eyes. “Thank you – thank you so much.”
“We’ve all been there,” I reassured her. “Don’t you worry. And don’t you worry, Little Man,” I told the staring child. “Mama’s got you. And now you have something new to investigate!”
The next thirty minutes were filled with silence – punctuated by an occasional giggle – before he fell asleep in Mama’s arms. If anyone on that plane sat in judgement, he certainly wasn’t humane enough to help. And, at least once I’d spoken up, certainly wasn’t bold enough to say anything.
I think that’s the way of the world.
I think there are more compassionate, we’re-in-this-together, hey-I-have-an-idea folks out there than our insecurities would have us believe.
Yet. So often, when we discipline — we parent — we behave and speak and react based on what we think others think about us. Which is exactly the opposite of what we’re telling our children to do. By our own examples – and our own (very understandable) insecurities, we’re teaching our children to judge themselves by others’ opinions….or, at least, by what our kids think those opinions are.
Which means that the issue of perfectionism isn’t really about making mistakes at all.
It’s about the framework we build for the kids now – before – a “performance.”
And it’s about the reaction we have to whatever happens in real time.
Think of this.
You can always spot a new mom by what she does when her child takes a spill. If she gasps and runs over, crooning over “the poor little baby,” odds are that she’s a rookie — and as time moves on, that kid is gonna feed off of her anxiety. However, if she hesitates, waits to see what the child does BEFORE reacting, and – if there is an injury – speaks calmly and matter-of-factly, she’s probably been down this road before.
“We all have blood inside us,” I have always told my children through tight hugs. “Sometimes a little comes out, but it’s no big deal. And here’s something you can do to make it feel better now. Which is a pretty cool power, you know.” And then? Then the upset “short person” (less stature and less birthdays do not equal less dignity or humanity) feels heard emotionally, reassured intellectually, and empowered to have some control over the chaos. Good. Stuff.
Back to my little ginger man. By keeping the post-block-correction gentle (and expected), the focus easy, by pointing to what he could control and maintaining a reassuring, firm attitude, the blocks did get picked up…and after a little bit, things did calm down.
Fast forward a few days. It’s Sunday, and I was breaking my usual rule of no-screens-EVER in church because — well, it had been that kind of a morning. Anyway, that same little guy is next to me, absolutely ROCKING the heck out of the cursive writing application he’s pulled up. In Montessori schools, like his, kids learn cursive writing on sandpaper letters, then in sand (which is wiped clean for them to have to try to remember and recreate), and finally executed on a vertical chalkboard LONG before they are presented with “their pencil.”
For the last two years, he’d been working all of his lower and upper-case letters — countless hours of diligent practice and intense focus in class and at home — and now, he was BEAMING.
“Look, Momma! Look! I’m getting them ALL RIGHT!” he shout-whispered to me (tugging on my leggings so hard that I have to admit I was dreading a Sunday-morning wardrobe malfunction). I smiled warmly. “I see that, my Love. You look very, very proud.” And he nodded giddily.
When we sat again, I whispered in his ear….
“I’m proud too, G-man, but not because you’re getting them right.
I’m proud because you did the long, hard part – the work part – the stick with it even while you have to do it over and erase and start again part.
YOU did that. No one else in this world could do it for you. YOU did it.
And remember the letters that used to come out backwards or kind of crazy?
They weren’t mistakes.
They were just messages that you were still in the working-at-it part.”
He seized my arm. “Wait! You mean just like when I knocked down the blocks! That was just an I’m-still-working-on-remembering-what-to-do-and-not-do thing?!” Of course it was….
And…of course it was…still on his mind, fresh and heavy, days later. I wasn’t surprised. In seventh grade, I misspelled ‘chieftain’ in the class spelling bee…and this many years later, I guess it’s clear I still remember THAT quite well.
Now, my son smiled jubilantly…relief filling his eyes – thrilled to be released from the torment and shame he’d built around such a “minor” blunder days before. Yep. He knows all of the key phrases. He understands them. He can even dole out the advice (trust me). But in the heat of the moment, when the anxiety hits the fan….it’s not so simple.
Mantras are important. Big time. Mindsets are crucial. But only – ONLY – if we make them real and relevant IN THE MOMENT. That’s the “preparation” before the “performance.” It’s the key to undermining our kids’ perfectionism. And it has to start with us. Now.
Think of climbing the ladder to a really high diving board…..
Everybody pays attention to whatever you do once you’re in the air. But, heck. The dive is just the flashy stuff. What really matters is what gets you there.
Putting one foot in front of another, scaling slippery step after step when you’re scared or tired or frustrated….THAT’s what gets you to the platform. That’s what gets you to the place where you can shine. Or belly flop.
And yes. You may slip on the way. You may turn around and think, “Um, not today.” You may get to the Olympics. Who knows?
But you won’t get ANYWHERE without the climb.
Which is why I replied, “I KNOW that ‘getting it right’ is so exciting. That must feel SO good…But…
…getting-it-right didn’t just happen! Do you remember all the long, hard work you’ve done? Little Man, Momma is VERY happy that you’re getting all these letters to look like you want! And I’m super-ooper-duper PROUD of you for the much-longer work-at-it part that came first. Because you DID keep at it. Your answers are what everyone sees now. But hard work is the part I’ve always been watching.”
And then, my little five-year-old stood six feet tall. For at least that moment, he understood that his “correct” answers weren’t the success worth celebrating on their own – they were worth celebrating as the final part -the FRUIT — of his work…the triumph which only HE could own.
I don’t expect that state of bliss will last. He’ll have other public blunders and need reminding that “Everything’s hard before it’s easy.” And that’s okay. Because….
That’s true for him — and it’s true for me. For ALL of us. So, if he doesn’t mind loving me even when I get the answers wrong, and if you don’t mind offering me a helping hand instead of a judgemental glare when I am anything-less-than-inspiring, I’ll keep at this sometimes unpretty but always sincere I’m-still-working-at-it bit.
And if, while you learn the right answers, while you figure out who you are, and make your dreams come ture – if during all that, you happen to knock down the blocks or annoy somebody on an airplane, you know what? Good. Tell your kids. They’d sure appreciate the waaay-less-than-perfect company.
Oh – while you’re at it, just go ahead and be human in public. Try your best and mess up. Try again and see what happens.
And if things get messy, if the blocks all fall down – well, there are a whole lot of us have been there (and still are there) and we will speak up for you.
And for our kids.
And those grumpy fake-perfect people? Well, they can go find their own airplane. Because we won’t be paying them any attention….
We’ll be far too busy learning to fly.
Our Favorite “Anti-perfectionism” tools:
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