In Defense of Perfectionism

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In Defense of PerfectionismYes, you read the title right. I’m defending perfectionism. To be clear – I don’t expect perfection from my kids, myself, my husband or anyone. After all, that is a crazy standard to achieve – being 100% correct, accurate, right, 100% of the time? Nope.

Not even close. Probably not even possible.

So why would I defend perfectionism, because clearly it is indefensible? Perfection in all things is a goal that is absolutely unattainable.

The truth is, I can’t defend perfectionism, but I can defend and advocate for the kid who is labeled as a perfectionist. You know that kid:

  • the one who is frustrated by a 95 test grade
  • the one who will work on an essay until well after a normal bedtime, just to get it right
  • the one who can’t stop working on a puzzle, until it is complete
  • the one who won’t take direction/correction about schoolwork
  • the one who frequently corrects your word choice, in honor of a more fitting word
  • the one who takes jokes so literally, that the meaning is lost.

It’s easy to call these kids perfectionists. They are seeking a high standard. A goal that well surpasses the average. They like to get things right. Right doesn’t always mean perfect. Sometimes right is more closely aligned with a desire for precision than for perfection.

Perfectionism vs Precision

What’s the difference?

Perfectionism

Sets extremely high goals.

May have difficulty prioritizing tasks.

Very sensitive to criticism.

Frequently self-critical when goals are missed

May experience unproductive anxiety about reaching goals.

May experience physical discomfort if expectations are not met.

Precision

Highly values being correct.

Makes decisions quickly.

Open to reevaluating with more information.

Parses information quickly.

Details matter – sometimes to the extreme.

Large vocabulary; may frequently use secondary definitions.

At this point, you may think that I am parsing words. That’s probably because I am. It is easy to lump both categories of kids into the same bucket – the high achievement bucket. But the crucial difference between kids who are perfectionists and the kids who are precise is in their emotional attachment to the outcome. Perfectionists feel a sense of profound loss (and sometimes worthlessness) when they don’t live up to their enormous standards. Precise kids are likely to get annoyed when someone else doesn’t understand or appreciate their exacting language, but they are unlikely to feel unworthy or defeated.

So why does all this matter?

It matters, because if we see perfectionism and precision as bad or inherently defective thought processes, then we’ll work hard to help our children rid themselves of these traits. Perfectionism gets a bad rap. But let’s face it; there are lots of professions out there, where we expect precision, if not perfection.

If your child is naturally precise, learn to embrace and encourage it, while balancing against the fear of failure and unreasonable expectations.

If we parent all the precision and perfectionism out of kids when they are young, then we are precluding them from joining countless professions that require it: law, science, engineering, programming, and more. I’m not interested in limiting my child’s horizons before he even has a chance to explore them – I’m betting you aren’t interested in this, either.

I’m a huge proponent of parenting to my kids strengths. Sometimes that means embracing the precision, even if it goes well beyond my own need for accuracy. Embracing doesn’t mean that there is no teaching/parenting/coaching left to be done. Rather it means I must respect the way my kids are wired, how their brains process information. Once I can respect the precision and only after I see it’s value, then I can help my kids understand how to use it effectively – when it matters and helps versus when it interferes and hinders.

Helping our kids ignite their passions, find balance in their lives, and navigate social norms will always be part of the work of parenthood. This doesn’t change if our kids seek perfection or precision. We must respect these natural tendencies, while helping them guard against the negative self-apprasial that can accompany perfectionism.


GHF Graphic Perfectionism

 

This post was written as part of a blog hop hosted by The Gifted Homeschoolers Forum.

Check out other folk’s take on Perfectionism and Other Gifted/2E Quirks.

 


 

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28 comments

  1. fourhungryboys says:

    Very insightful and well written! My niece is very precise yet some would call her a perfectionist. However, when you broke down the difference I clearly see were she lays. I am going to have to forward this to my sister :)

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      I’m glad you can relate! Hopefully your sister has lots of patience! I find it helpful when raising a very intense and precise child :-)

  2. Paula Prober says:

    I like the way you distinguish between perfectionism and precision and what you say about “finding balance” and navigating “social norms.” I often include precision in my description of “healthy or intrinsic perfectionism.” This is such a great topic because perfectionism is complex and often misunderstood. Thanks for this post, Maggie!

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Paula – Perfectionism is such a complex concept and it looks so different from one person to the next. My husband and I have been talking a lot lately about how to encourage our youngest’s innate attraction to precision. Like any intensity in a child, it creates moments of annoyance, but one of our jobs as his parents are to help him shape his passions into lifelong joys. Hopefully, we are on the right track.

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Jenny – I hope that your children’s areas of perfectionism are sources of joy and pleasure for them.

  3. Miranda says:

    I was a perfectionist kid who grew into a ‘precision’ adult. I remember hearing from a lot of adults when I was younger that I needed to ‘relax’ or ‘be a kid’ and I would have loved to have had a teacher or adult in my life who understood. If I have a perfectionist child one day, hopefully I’ll be able to help them cope.

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Miranda – All kids deserve to have someone who really understands them and encourages them – even when, as adults, we might not fully understand that is driving that child!

  4. Nikki says:

    Well written. My sister has been a perfectionist since she’s been little, and I’m starting to see the signs in my daughter. I’m trying not to push her since she seems to get frustrated all by herself. I needed this post.

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Yes, Nikki! Kids who already push themselves so hard, rarely need extra pushing from the adults in their lives. Except maybe some pushing to figure out how to find a balance sometimes! Examples of giving ourselves grace can be very powerful for our perfectionist kids.

  5. labellavidadesign says:

    I love the way that you distinguish between perfectionism and precision. I knew a few kids that way when I was in school and I never really understood it. Thanks for breaking it down for me!

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Sometimes fixing a “problem” really just requires a new way of looking at something and appreciating the upside more than the downside. Like anything, perfectionism can get out of hand and become unproductive, but in my mind, that’s really the intersection of perfectionism and anxiety.

  6. Nicole Linn says:

    I love your perspective, Maggie. My girls tend to be perfectionists in areas that they are not as confident in and precise in the stronger areas. The distinction between the two is a great tool to help them grow toward the healthy side of both.

  7. I love that you made the distinction between perfectionism and precision. It is almost counterintuitive to understand that a perfectionist may quit trying because of the almost unattainable goals they set. To be honest, I used to think of a perfectionist as a person who fits the traits you provided for someone who focuses on precision. The negative repercussions from perfectionism are not well-known. Thanks for portraying both traits so very clearly!

  8. I really agree with your emphasis on precision. It is so important that we encourage kids to embrace this and not slack off. Especially gifted kids, who often coast through school with little to challenge them.

    I also appreciate your distinction between perfectionism and precision. I subscribe to the belief that perfectionism is unhealthy, as it creates too much anxiety, insecurity, etc., I wrote a blog post about this recently: http://giftedchallenges.blogspot.com/2015/04/are-gifted-individuals-really.html.

    Providing the distinction between the importance of precision and the unhealthy aspects of perfectionism is great. Thanks for your helpful post.

    • I love this post and I agree with Gail. Precision is key, and elements of perfectionism can be adaptive; however, perfectionism in its true sense is maladaptive. My son will get so anxious and will avoid activities because of his perfectionism. Thanks for this!

  9. Wenda Sheard says:

    My favorite part of your post: “The crucial difference between kids who are perfectionists and the kids who are precise is in their emotional attachment to the outcome.” Thanks for so well stating that crucial difference.

  10. I love what you say here! “Embracing doesn’t mean that there is no teaching/parenting/coaching left to be done. Rather it means I must respect the way my kids are wired, how their brains process information. Once I can respect the precision and only after I see it’s value, then I can help my kids understand how to use it effectively – when it matters and helps versus when it interferes and hinders.”

  11. Kailei says:

    I really like this. My first is only a few months old, but if she is anything like me, she will seek precision. I was afraid that might be a bad thing but now I see that it’s not at all. Thanks for the perspective!

  12. alicia says:

    Really liked this! I have a type A child and sometimes it’s hard to parent him because well he’s so type A and I’m so not but I love his attention to detail and the way he sees things and thinks about things!

  13. Brea says:

    I love this! My son is VERY precise and gets upset when things aren’t his way. I love seeing the world through his eyes-but sometimes it’s hard with the precision he needs.

  14. lorigraceh says:

    A very good post that makes an insightful distinction between being a perfectionist and being precise. I hadn’t thought it through like this but you make an excellent point!

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