"I'm dumb", "I can't do anything right", "You think I'm stupid", "My brain doesn't do the right thing". If you have ever heard your child say these words out loud as they make a mistake during homework or playtime, then I'm sure your heart breaks just like mine everytime my son says them. It was with both pain and surprise that I would ask my 6 yr old son, "Why would you think that about yourself?"
Parenthood is an incredibly humbling experience if you allow it to be. My 6 yr old son has been the best teacher I have had in this life. By observing him and by truly listening to him I have learned more about myself, relationships, and life in general. I didn't know I was much of a perfectionist parent till very recently when my son began saying these words out loud in school. I have always known that my son is a perfectionist child. My husband and I tried our best to give him the mechanisms to cope with his frustrations at home when things were not going his way. But we can't be at school with him every day, constantly reminding him to breathe or walk away. After his teacher shared her observations with me, I was forced to reflect and ask myself "What am I doing? What am I saying? How can I help him?" The following is a list of what I have learned- and continue to learn- about parenting my perfectionist child:
- Set the example: It's not enough to say to my son "It's ok to make mistakes", I have to live this motto every day in front of my child. I started working from home recently and my son now sees me in my work environment. When my laptop freezes mid-project, instead of saying "stupid computer..." like before I now close it and turn my chair to face the window and breathe. When I make mistakes around the house I am also more mindful of my son being a witness to my actions and I say "oh well, I'm still learning. It will be better next time" as I walk away for a moment or watch an instructional video to improve my skills. This is hard, so very hard for me. I don't like having to start over on a project. But nothing can be done, time machines are a fantasy, we move forward.
- Praise actions: I am very aware now of how many times I used to praise my son by saying "That's perfect! I love it!" every time he did something right. Research shows that positive reinforcement is a more effective method of discipline. But positive reinforcement is more than "Good Job" and "Way to go!". In order for this method to be effective with my son, I now say "I really like how you took your time to write that J", "You worked so hard to make your bed. It looks wonderful!". More words and more work but it has paid off. The more I give specific praise, the more I am seeing my son continue to model these desired behaviors. It's not about the result being perfect, it's about how hard we work in the process.
- Closeness Matters: In order for me to understand what activities and actions lead to my son's frustrations I have had to observe him and engage him throughout the day. When he is cleaning his room I sit by his bed and watch him or offer minor guidance. This is how I learned that if his sheets had a little lump in them he would just throw the sheets on the floor and say "This is stupid, it will never be perfect!" Because I was near I walked him to my room so he can see my imperfect lumpy bed. When he plays with legos I make sure he is playing right next to me next to my desk so that when I hear him start to get mad when pieces don't align perfectly, we can work through it together. I can't always be near. I work and he goes to school, but I make it a point to at least be next to him daily during one or two of his activities.
- Learn Together: My son used to have the odd concept that I was all-knowing. He would say "You only win because you know everything!" So I began to do activities with him where we are both learning and working together. For us, the major one has been gardening. Our entire garden this year has been a product of us shopping for flowers and seeds together, planning together, experimenting with soils, and making compost. I intentionally say out loud "I wonder if it will grow?", "That row of flowers looks a little off but those colors are so pretty", or "What should we grow/plant next?". Gardening is so much about the work you put in and there is so much learning as you go, and I have learned that both my son and I leave our perfectionism behind when we put on those gardening gloves.
- Meltdowns Will Happen: My son is a perfectionist. That is his personality and I am not trying to change him, nor do I want to. This child wants to run his own business someday, his perfectionism will pay off for him in the future. What I want for him is to learn to be kind to himself when he does make mistakes. Before, when he would get upset and say he was dumb or stupid, I would say "Why would you think that? I don't call you that! Don't say that about yourself!" But I have learned to listen to his feelings and show him the kindness I want him to show himself. This isn't about me, it's about him and his very real feelings of feeling unhappiness in himself in that moment. I kneel down and say "I know this can be frustrating. I would get upset too if I worked so hard on my lego tower and then it all fell down. What can I do?" Sometimes he simply hugs me and asks "Do you still love me?" and I squeeze him so hard and say yes and he laughs from how hard I am squeezing him. Other times he says "Can you help me with...?" And if I can, I stop what I am doing to help or guide him. Carefully and kindly validating the frustrations that stem from his perfectionism has led to some beautiful moments between us.
Since I began modifying my parenting style to fit my son's personality, our days and weeks have improved greatly. His teacher reports that he is having better days at school and I see the same at home. Good days have turned into great weeks, and now months. None of this is easy and it requires pause and intention, but my investment has paid off. A few weeks ago while we were cooking together, I missed a step on a recipe, my son quickly said to me as he patted my arm "Don't worry mommy, everybody makes mistakes", I choked up with tears and said, "Thank you baby." It was a moment in parenthood perfection... and even if it wasn't, it felt good nonetheless.