I recently read an article criticizing the use of “perfectionism” among gifted groups. The article said that perfectionism was actually the inability to leave a project for tiny tweaks to try to make the project come out absolutely perfect. This has been eating at me for a while. While I agree that this description is one aspect of perfectionism, children rarely do anything exactly one way and gifted children are especially odd with regard to that. Think about it, when we imagine someone afraid, we imagine someone curled up protectively, right? Yet we see kids who are afraid attack, or stop talking, or even tear themselves apart. If those can be the various reactions to fear, what can be the varied reactions to perfectionism?
Pumpkin has perfectionist tendencies. When I say that, I’m not always talking about working on something until I literally have to tear him away. His perfectionism manifests in meltdowns when things don’t come together the way he imagined or flat-out avoidance when he knows there is no way the result will be what he imagines. Examples? Oh, there are plenty. During our brief foray into public kindergarten there was one now infamous incident with jellyfish. The teacher had this little cutting project where the kids were supposed to cut out a square and glue a couple of s-shapes to the bottom. She called these jellyfish, and Pumpkin simply refused to do the project. Why? He told his teacher, “Jellyfish are not square. They don’t have bones so their shape fluctuates.” He was five, of course. But that teacher was the one who said she saw no evidence he was a gifted kid. Apparently five-year-olds correctly use and pronounce “fluctuate” all the time.
I’ve nearly given up on baseball. Pumpkin keeps playing, but nearly every game ends badly. That’s because if he strikes out, the world has ended. I’ve told him he’s the king of self-fulfilling prophesies, because if he starts out negatively, he will strike out and the day will end up with a major meltdown that can only be handled by physically stuffing him in the car, driving him home, setting him in his room and letting him pound pillows to exhaustion.
If I had a nickel for every time he’s refused to do something (scouts, baseball, art class, whatever) because it “won’t come out right, anyway”, I’d be rich. Writing has been one of these. Pumpkin is a very reluctant writer and he’s full of excuses that turn out to be just excuses. The real reason gleaned from lots of trial and error and discovery is that he reads all these stories and knows he can’t yet write a book that is nearly as good as those, so why bother? He is a very good writer when he does write. You’ll never see a “See Jane run” sentence from him. Somehow the astounding-for-his-age product he puts out just isn’t good enough. He expects so much of himself. Not only does it have to be perfect, but it seems that it must be perfect on the first try. Piano songs, sports, art projects, math, his model for history — you name it. When the result is less than perfect, the world has ended and he is now the world’s worst *fill in the blank* that ever lived.
These days, we don’t allow the word “perfect”. That old adage “Practice makes perfect” has been reworded to “Practice makes permanent”. All “perfect” stickers from my teaching stickers have mysteriously fallen off the roll. We begin each lesson with, “Remember, it does not have to be perfect.” I then sing it for added emphasis. Sometimes, just sometimes, he remembers.
Someday, he probably will use that stubborn streak for perseverance and he may be the type to work a project until he drops of near starvation because he forgot to eat, but for now, he just avoids everything. I believe that this is a perfectionist quality and as his mother, it might be one of the qualities I dislike the most. It causes more problems in our household than any other.
How did I conclude that it was perfectionism? Well, that’s an interesting story. Do you remember a few years back that Barbara Streisand had a hit song from “The Mirror Has Two Faces” but she declined to sing it at the Oscars, and Celine Dion ended up singing it instead? There were all sorts of rumors flying around about the situation: that Streisand was snubbing the Oscars because she wasn’t nominated for her movie, that Streisand had lost her voice, that Streisand missed the performance on purpose. None of them were true. She was at the Oscars and she did miss the performance and was devastated for it. The schedule had gotten rearranged some. She went out to the bathroom and they moved the song up in the lineup, so she didn’t get to hear it live. So why didn’t she perform it? Streisand is a notorious perfectionist. She rehearses things until even the musicians can’t stand to hear them anymore. When she performs live, she’s often inconsolable for days after because of a single tiny flub that only she noticed. She said in an interview that she decided her high blood pressure simply couldn’t take more mental head-bashing and so she asked to have her song performed by another singer, originally suggesting Natalie Cole.
Bottom line, if Barbara Streisand can avoid something because she’s a perfectionist and she’s an adult, why do we expect children to handle these tendencies any better?
I can be a perfectionist too. Luckily for me, it doesn’t land in all areas. However, I did avoid writing this blog post for weeks before Corin Barsily Goodwin finally convinced me I’d do it justice. I hope I did. Certainly I’ll find a typo in a couple of days to obsess over. I am a perfectionist in writing and even knowing it’s not healthy, I’m not able to make it go away.