What my son’s perfectionist tendencies had to say about me

About a year ago, I asked for advice about some challenges I was having with my five-year-old son who was finding losing really difficult. It didn’t matter what game it was – from Go Fish, to Snap, to running races, or soccer in the backyard. Let’s not forget the meltdowns when I found him in hide and seek. I’d also started noticing him saying things like, “I’m not good at reading,” and, “I can’t do it.” After I described all of this to a friend, the question was posed to me – “Any chance your son’s a perfectionist?”

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Truth be told, I hadn’t thought that the tantrums, frustration, hesitation to try new things and whinging was anything more than disconnected annoying things my son was randomly doing. Turns out, they’re all dead giveaways of his perfectionistic traits.

On getting things ‘just right’

Around the same time, a friend sent me a Pinterest link to a list of books that teaches kids to ‘stop and think, handle emotions, and be mindful’. And so I made my way to the local library and brought one of them home – The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires. Sitting down with my son to read it, I was excited by the prospect that it would help him get in touch with his feelings of frustration and conquer his perfectionist tendencies. What I didn’t see coming was the amount of cringing I would do (inwardly, of course) as I recognised myself in page after page of the story.

In the book, the main character tries to build something magnificent but keeps getting it wrong. She persists, gets more and more frustrated when she can’t get it ‘just right’, and ends up so angry she accidentally smashes her finger with a hammer. Needless to say we soon find her crying in a heap on the floor, having given up. It all felt just a little too familiar. See, I’ve spent plenty of days trying so hard to get this parenting thing ‘just right’ only to end up like the little girl in the book – frustrated, impatient, angry and in despair. Not the person I want to be with my kids.

But is perfectionism all bad?

Just a few years ago I would have proudly called myself a perfectionist. Being a perfectionist means I’m good with detail, I follow through on my commitments, get things done – and get them done well. I saw perfectionism as a good thing – a character trait to be proud of. In the workplace, being the person who volunteered for extra duties and went the extra mile usually brought rewards. It meant acknowledgement, getting paid overtime and maybe even getting promoted.

The thing is, I don’t think it works quite the same way with parenting. Perfectionism just isn’t an achievable or worthwhile ideal to live up to here. I’ve learned that saying yes to everything, pushing myself to the limit, never giving up and holding myself to impossibly high standards as a mum just leads to exhaustion, guilt and bitterness.

The ‘even worse’ of perfectionism

In her book about creativity, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says, “Perfectionism stops people from completing their work. But even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work.” She talks about how perfectionists often decide in advance that their work is never going to be enough, and so they just don’t bother trying to be creative in the first place.

For me this looks like deciding not to invite my child’s friend over because I don’t have homemade baking to offer their mum and my house isn’t clean. It’s not volunteering to be on the fundraising committee because I might not raise the most money. It’s not playing with my kids because I don’t have the energy to make a really cool craft or make up an awesome, imaginative story.

Working with the woman in the mirror

One of the most frustrating but transformative parts of parenting is that more often than not, to help our kids, we have to work on ourselves first. We can’t give what we don’t have. So in my quest to understand my son, I’ve learned so much about my own perfectionism.

I’ve changed some of my self-talk. I’ve replaced mantras like ‘no pain no gain’ and ‘you can sleep when you’re dead’ with ‘good enough is good enough’ and ‘being gentle on myself helps me to be gentle with others’. I’ve stopped trying to do everything myself. I’m even learning to swallow my pride and test the ultimate of easier-said-than-done concepts for a prideful perfectionist – asking for help. I’m realising that I don’t have to do it all, and actually, it’s good to leave some room for others to help.

There are plenty of good things about perfectionism. I’d like my children to grow up working hard, persisting, achieving, holding themselves to a high standard and being responsible and successful. These values are important in our family. However, I’d also like them to feel that their worth in life isn’t dependent on their achievements and that they’re loved for who they are, not what they do. They don’t need to be perfect. And neither do I.

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

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