Many years ago, I watched Little Shop of Horrors, a humorous musical about a nerdy florist named Seymour who raises a house plant named Audrey that feeds on human blood. When Seymour accidentally pricks his finger, he discovers that Audrey needs blood to survive. What Seymour doesn't know is that the more blood Audrey receives, the larger and more demanding she would become.
As the musical progresses, Audrey grows into a deep-voiced, obnoxious, palm-sized plant which screams, "Feeeeed me!" A few drops of blood from Seymour's fingers couldn't sustain Audrey any longer, so she eats him.
Having a perfectionist child can be a lot like dealing with Audrey. Without realizing it, parents can encourage idealistic tendencies in their children by "feeding" their perfectionism. The result can be a child that grows out of control, and, like Audrey, is very demanding.
Here are five ways to tame the perfectionism in your child and recover your sanity.
Perfectionism grows when it's encouraged. If your perfectionist daughter will not eat dinner because it's not arranged the "right" way on her plate, let her know that she'll either eat it as it's served or she won't eat at all. To a permissive parent, this may sound mean. But by not bending to your child's demands, you keep from being controlled by her. And you won't be so wiped out at the end of the day from being pushed around by a perfectionist kid.
If your child throws a temper tantrum because her shoes are the wrong color and don't match her dress, don't feed her perfectionism by cajoling her or reasoning with her. Instead, step over her as she is wailing, and go on with what you were doing. She'll learn that to function in life, she has to bend — a skill that all successful and confident people need.
Dr. Kevin Leman, author of a number of excellent parenting books including Have a New Kid by Friday, says that firstborn children are often perfectionists because parents tend to treat their firstborns differently from their latter-born children. You may have heard the joke that a mother sterilizes every pacifier for her first born. But by the time the same mother is on child number three, if the pacifier falls into the dirt, mom brushes it off and sticks it back in her child's mouth. Naturally, because parents are more structured with their firstborns, those children generally desire more structure.
In a conversation with MSNBC, Dr. Leman said, ". . . children are like wet cement. It's true that they are much more moldable in the first six or seven years of life. It's one of the few things you'll get psychologists and psychiatrists to agree on. You are not going to change the perfectionistic nature of a driven firstborn. But you know, you might round off the edges."1
The good news is that many CEOs and presidents of companies are firstborns. It's no wonder. If they were in charge at home over younger siblings, it's a no-brainer for them to be in charge at work.
If you are a firstborn, you'll need to do the best you can to "round off your own perfectionistic edges" if you want to help your kids become more flexible. Amy, a firstborn mother of two small children says that she often wondered why her firstborn child was so picky about the smallest things. Then she learned about Dr. Leman's analysis of firstborns and realized that her child was demonstrating what she herself had modeled. Not surprisingly, a perfectionist child and a perfectionist parent will butt heads because when each doesn't have their own agenda met, there will be fireworks.
If you suspect that you struggle with perfectionism, ask yourself if less than perfect is OK in some instances. Is it OK for you not to feel in control if your child doesn't pick up every toy before she goes to bed at night? Is it all right if she misses her back teeth when she is brushing now and then?
When you can embrace your own imperfection, your child will realize that less than perfect is acceptable. This will help her develop into a secure, confident and flexible adult. If you struggle with extreme perfectionism, remember that there are trained counselors who can help you with your challenges.
There is nothing like a little humor to lighten a tense moment. When your perfectionist child feels like life is falling apart, a little joking, teasing or acting silly will send a strong message to your kid: Imperfection is not the end of the world.
Granted, it can be a challenge sometimes to find the light side of something that seems like a disaster, but it can be done. Additionally, when you can laugh at your own mistakes, your child will learn to laugh at his, too.
In moments when humor is not appropriate, you can tell a hopeful story from your own experience to encourage your son or daughter. When Robert's son Mark was angry at himself because he missed a free throw that caused his team to lose a basketball game, Robert pulled a story from his past out to share with his son. He talked about the time when he missed a touchdown pass in overtime. He was also able to tell Mark that by the next game his team had forgotten what happened, and he did much better.
Story telling about your own experiences can help you bond with you child, but it can also help your son or daughter see that survival is possible after failure.
"Rounding off" the perfectionist edges in your child will help him become more successful and secure in his mistakes.