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Points on Perfecting Practice with a Perfectionist

Are you a perfectionist? Do you cringe when you read a speling mistake? (sorry, couldn’t resist) Do you spend hours doing and redoing productive tasks…because it is never quite good enough in your eyes? Do you have a hard time letting things go?….knowing when enough is enough?

Being a perfectionist or living with one can be difficult. Imagine walking through life unable to try something new because of a monumental fear that you may not do it perfectly on the first try. Imagine being unable to finish any given task because you just don’t feel it is good enough. Imagine stifling the learning and creativity of your child because you just can’t let go of the fact that they need the freedom to make their own mistakes and learn from them. I see all of these scenerios every week in my studio.

Let me begin with the perfectionist parent. Some of us know who we are…yes I too have struggled with perfectionism my whole life. I didn’t think it was an issue for me anymore until I recently heard a lecture on perfectionism by Clayton Scott After hearing the first 10 minutes of her lecture I realized that am still struggling with being a perfectionist in some areas of life.

So, the perfectionist parent – in the music class – may be seen doing the following (all with the best of intentions of course). Remember, I am a struggling perfectionist so I may have been guilty of a few of these with my own children at one time or another. The following behaviors could prevent your child from progressing  and/or developing strong self esteem – ironically the very thing parents are trying to avoid.

  • may take over tasks meant for the child to complete.. eg. can’t handle sloppy colouring so will colour for the child or fix the child’s colouring, do or “fix” cutting assignments
  • give their child the answer when the child is asked a question in class without giving the child a chance to think or the teacher a chance to guide the child’s thinking to reach the answer
  • when playing ensemble (and likely when practicing) will press the keys for their child or say every letter name or tell their child to just stop playing if they make a mistake or get extremely frustrated if a mistake is made. Will not let the child have a sticker if a mistake is made.
  • will make excuses for their child,  often when the child’s performance, answer or work was acceptable or even well done.

The perfectionist student.

  • asks their parent to complete colouring/cutting tasks for them or become extremely upset if they make a mistake (colour outside the line or cut a piece off that shouldn’t have been cut)
  • has difficulty/resists playing ensemble because they cannot handle making a mistake. They can’t get past that and carry on.  In extreme cases a tantrum will ensue – distracting the rest of the students in the room.
  • take a very long time to complete a task because first they must feel confident with what is being asked before they even begin. Then the task must be completed to perfection (in their eyes)
  • resist attempting  a new skill, especially in class
  • have difficulty with performances – may even stop half way through a performance if a mistake is made

Now of course there is a whole spectrum of perfectionism and according to  Scott there are three main types of perfectionists. The bottom line is being a perfectionist can inhibit learning and developing creativity. So what can we do if our child is a perfectionist and what if we ourselves are perfectionist?

Moms and Dads, grit your teeth and allow your child to complete creative tasks on their own. Look the other way if you must, sit on your hands concentrate on the beautiful colour your child chose or the way your child is holding the scissors or how confidently they are completing the task. Look for the specific things that your child is doing well and avoid generalized comments like “that was good”. Try something like “I loved how you made sure your thumb was in the sky when you were cutting!”

Please do not give your child the answer to a “class question”. Give your child the chance to accomplish something by allowing them to think it through. This is one area of class for which children will NEVER need parental help. The parent’s role in the class is so important but feeding answers to your child is not one of those roles. In fact in doing this parents not only keep their own child from having a chance to shine but they also do not give the teacher a chance to assess how much understanding your child/the rest of the class has. For example if nobody in the class (no STUDENTS) in the class can answer the question, then the teacher knows that she must revisit that concept so that the children will understand.

If your child makes a mistake let them know that it is ok, that nothing bad will happen. To let it go, to move on. If it is the same mistake being made over and over again then there is obviously an issue that needs to be worked out, but a slip does not need to have a spotlight put on it, especially for a child that is a perfectionist. Don’t worry – they KNOW they made a mistake. Help your child to see how well they did on the rest of the piece or phrase. Scott suggests to count the notes in the song and comment on the disparity between the number of correct notes and the number of mistakes.

If your child is afraid to start a new task ask “what is the worst thing that could happen if you try?” Help them to see that nothing terrible will happen if they don’t succeed at something today, that they can always try again tomorrow. Allow yourself to see that not everything has to be mastered at once.  Rejoice in the baby steps.

Know when enough is enough. If your child is becoming stressed when working at the keyboard or on their homework assignment, take a break and have a snack and come back to it later. If YOU are becoming frustrated, take a break, have a snack and come back to it later.

I wish all of you could have heard Clayton Scott speak. Her insight to the world of “the perfectionist” was bang on.  It was nice to hear that being a perfectionist about some things is ok but that if it begins to have a negative effect there are real steps you can take to help you or your child to relax a little and to enjoy the process of learning together.

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