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Copyright 2006 Julie Shepherd Knapp
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Copyright 2006 Julie Shepherd Knapp.  All rights reserved.
The Homeschool Diner's Guide to
Homeschooling Special Situations

What is Perfectionism?
Can Homeschooling Help Kids Who are Perfectionists?

by Julie Shepherd Knapp, copyright 2006

Is it a diligent quest for excellence?  Or, is it the relentless, unrealistic
pursuit of unattainable perfection in all things?

Perfectionism is often considered to be a component of a strong work
ethic and many people believe that "perfection" should be everyone's
ultimate goal.  While an adult may find that this attitude helps motivate
them to do their best and excel in their careers, a problem can develop
when children become included in the quest for perfection.  

Children, by nature, rarely achieve perfection in any undertaking.
For most children, aside from the rare prodigy, their immature minds and
bodies are incapable of consistently meeting adult levels of competence
at any task -- they are still developing, still learning, still growing.  For
young children, especially, making mistakes is a big part of learning.
Childish mistakes are only natural, and children need to be comfortable
with their own levels of success and progress.

Children need our help to understand that it is normal, expected,
and quite OK to make mistakes.
 We need to point out to them that
everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  People aren't born knowing
everything or being able to do everything.  Point out that no one (even
an adult) is right all the time.  Explain to them that our goals are
sometimes out of reach.  We must help them see that it may take a lot of
practice to succeed in some activities and that it's normal to try and fail
many times -- especially at the things adults or older children seem to do
so easily.  Most of all, we need to let them see that even adults make
mistakes (and made plenty when they were kids).  

It seems like everyone should already know this, but children may not.  
They see older people all around them doing things so effortlessly that
they may feel it should be easy for them, too.  Let them know that you
make mistakes all the time.  Let them see you deal calmly with mistakes.  
(If this is hard for you to do, you'll need to make a special effort -- your
children do learn by watching you).

Some gifted children may stubbornly set very high standards for
themselves, and seem to have an innate drive for excellence at a
very young age.
 This mind-set can lead to great successes, and, of
course, great disappointments, as well.  Even though they may seem to
be very self-motivated and self-sufficient, they probably need help
learning to keep triumphs and failures in perspective.  They need to
know that they have your love and support, whether or not they (or you)
feel they did their best work, and regardless of their level of
achievement.  If you have a gifted child like this, take a look at "
Perfectionism a Part of Giftedness?" by Thomas Greenspon and
Helping Gifted Students Cope with Perfectionism by Michael

Some special needs children may be especially sensitive to
 Children with learning disabilities, developmental delays, or  
processing disorders may find that there are many things they cannot do
-- even though their friends and age mates
can do them.  They may fear
trying new things, because they don't want to fall short, yet again.  It can
be very discouraging for these children -- especially for those who are
also very intelligent and may have big plans that they have trouble
carrying out.  Parents can help their child work around the disability, and
find ways of accomplishing the child's goals, or helping them discover
alternate areas where they can be successful.

Children who have Asperger's Syndrome or trouble with  
Executive Function may have unique issues with success and
 They may start out with unrealistic (even naive) goals and
expectations, and truly don't understand what went wrong when they
aren't able to meet these goals.  Their disorder gets in the way of
estimating the time and skill needed to attain a goal, and then prevents
them from being able to realistically evaluate their own progress toward
that goal.  They seem overconfident in their knowledge and abilities, and
then totally devastated when proven wrong or incapable of completing a
task.  It can be truly frustrating for the child and the parents.  Lisa Piles  
has many wise ideas for coping with this situation in her article,
Perfectionism and Asperger Syndrome: Homeschooling the Child
Who Can't Make Mistakes .

Sometimes, an adult may forget that children are not capable of
being "perfect", no matter how hard a child might try.
 Some adults
insist that a child's work must always be "redone" to make it right, or a
"less than perfect" product is given more focus than the effort a child put
into it. If the adult plays an important part of a child's life, such as a
parent, grandparent, teacher, or coach, the child may become
discouraged at not meeting the adult's expectations.

When a child's efforts are always unappreciated, or he or she is
repeatedly embarrassed, scolded, or berated for not doing a good
enough job, the child may interpret this adult dissatisfaction to mean that
anything less than perfect is unacceptable -- a total failure.  And, by
unfortunate extension, these children may begin to see themselves as
failures.  They may also grow to believe that people will only love them if
they do things "perfectly".

Needless to say, this is not a healthy situation for any child.  If you are,
yourself, a perfectionist, you may remember occasions in your childhood
that led you to your drive to be perfect.  It is an unfortunate cycle that
some families find themselves in.  Adults may even, unknowingly,
contribute to this cycle, by asking that a child always "do their best"
(doesn't that mean do it "perfectly"?), or by taking over tasks that a child
finds challenging, instead of letting him or her work through it, or by
having unrealistic expectations about a child's abilities or their behavior.

When living up to adult standards becomes the measure of a
child's success it can become difficult for a child to function.
may feel that she has to do perfect work at all times, spending hours on
simple tasks -- doing them over and over until they are "just right".  A
child may be so worried about making mistakes that he avoids tasks that
look the least bit difficult.  A child may worry herself sick about homework
and reports, dreading even beginning them because she knows how
much effort it will take to get them done "right".  A child may avoid social
activities for fear of saying or doing the wrong things.  A child may also
become overly focused on his or her physical appearance if adult (or
peer) approval is always tied to looking "perfect".      

Can we do anything to overcome perfectionism?  Adults may want
to read more about perfectionism (there are several resources listed
below), to understand how it has shaped their lives and/or how it affects
their children. Many people benefit from finding a professional to speak
with about perfectionism and about how to make positive changes in their
lives and the lives of their families.   

Homeschooling can provide some relief for children who are driven
to do all assignments perfectly or to always out-perform their
classmates.  It can be a chance for parents and children to reduce
external pressures and stress, and to get away from grades, deadlines,
and unhealthy competition.  

As a homeschool parent, you can help your child find topics and projects
that are fun and interesting.  Help your child see that it is possible to
learn for the simple joy of learning, without needing to generate a
product that will be evaluated or graded.  Encourage your child to
explore topics just to learn more about them -- without external guidelines
or the prospect of a written report.  

Encourage your child to try new things, but avoid monitoring the task to
see that it is "done right".  Focus on their effort and the fun of learning
new things, rather than on the result. Talk about the benefit of mistakes
and how we all make them, and how they are good -- because we learn
from them.  Avoid using a sarcastic or "I told you so" tone of voice when
your child makes a mistake, instead sympathize with them, and let them
know you love them whether they did it perfectly or not.     

Join your child in his or her explorations.  Learn together and talk
together about what you learn. Let your child know that you enjoy your
time spent learning together.  You might want to explore the homeschool
approaches of
Independent Research and Unschooling.  They may
provide the freedom your child needs to move away from perfectionism.

Free Online Resources

WHAT'S WRONG WITH PERFECT? an article by By Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D.,
"Excellence is attainable and provides a good sense of accomplishment.
Perfection feels impossible and is impossible for the doer...."

Is Perfectionism a Part of Giftedness? -- written especially for The
Homeschool Diner by Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D

Helping Gifted Students Cope with Perfectionism by Michael Pyryt

Counseling needs of academically talented students with
learning disabilities by  Sally M. Reis and Robert Colbert

Perfectionism and Asperger Syndrome: Homeschooling the Child
Who Can't Make Mistakes by Lisa Piles

Working with Perfectionist Students an article by Jere Brophy,
includes strategies for educators         

The many faces of perfectionism  by Etienne Benson, The need for
perfection comes in different flavors, each associated with its own set of
problems, says researcher Paul Hewitt, PhD

Unhappy? Self-Critical? Maybe You're Just a Perfectionist  an
article by Benedict Carey, The New York Times

Children and Perfectionism: a Parent/Teacher Handout by Virginia
Smith Harvey, Nashua, NH Public Schools

Mr. Rogers Talks About Making Mistakes -- look for these helpful
episodes from Mr Roger's Neighborhood PBS TV series

Tips for helping gifted children deal with perfectionism an article
from the Davidson Institute

A Review of Perfectionism an article by the Fly Lady -- perfectionism
even comes into play in doing (or not doing) housework

Christian Thoughts: In Pursuit of Perfection a blog by Sonya Triggs

Overcoming Perfectionism by James J. Messina, Ph.D. & Constance
M. Messina, Ph.D -- good descriptions of how perfectionists see
themselves -- helpful for those who are not perfectionists, but are trying
to understand their spouse or child

Recommended Reading

What to Do When Good Enough Isn't Good Enough: The Real Deal
on Perfectionism: A Guide For Kids a book by Thomas S.
Greenspon, Ph.D., a book written for children about perfectionism and
what to do about it
Nobody Is Perfick a book for kids by Bernard Waber
Mistakes Book List for Children --  from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood
Seeking Perfection by Matthew Ropp -- an interesting essay about
Biblical references to perfection, as well as perfectionism in Japanese
society.  "Perfection belongs to God alone. God alone is divine and we
are but human, with many faults..."
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to
Overcoming Anxiety -- a book by Dawn Huebner
Worry less, love more -- parenting advice from Scott Noelle

Deep Thoughts:

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful
than a life spent doing nothing.” -- George Bernard Shaw

Certificate of Empowerment from Sandra Dodd

Idealism vs Perfectionism by Scott Noelle

Go With the Flow... Even If It's 'Wrong' by Scott Noelle

Homeschooling families certainly aren't all alike -- are you
homeschooling with a "
Special Situation"?
(back to)
special situations
(back to)
homeschool basics
"Even monkeys fall out of trees"
-- Japanese saying