Published in ‘Parenting’ Magazine, Issue 27, Summer 2006/7

Parenting the child who just HAS to get it right!

The perfectionist child
The perfectionist child

If you don’t have a child like this you will hardly believe what I am about to describe. In fact, there are very few parenting books that give you any advice on this type of child – what help do you need when parenting a child whose primary need is to do things right?

However, I can assure you, from personal experience, I know these children exist and they do have specific needs that, if not met, can lead to rebellious behavior.

Little perfectionists like order in their lives. They love rules, thrive on certainty and ache for security. When we understand this, and give these children the support they need, they will bloom. However, the trick is to help them deal with the inevitable chaos that is also part of life.

Let me describe some of the typical behaviours that will help you decide if you have one of these order-loving children?

Children with this personality-preference tend to be active. They have a plan in mind and they won’t be happy unless they are moving ahead with it. They are very observant. All their senses are open to their surroundings and they take in facts and details that will constantly surprise you. These kids have great memories and can convince you they can read from an early age as they memorise not only all the words of a book but when to turn the page. They can appear to be initially shy in a new environment, however, once that place becomes familiar to them they will relax and settle.

Their need for accuracy means their drawings are very realistic. In fact they will not value something they draw or create unless it looks like the real thing. Younger children will often ask their adult carer “Can you draw me a house?” (cat, horse – whatever!) as they know an older person is very likely to be able to do a better job than they can.

They love rules and will often be the ‘policeman’ of the house, making sure everyone is sticking to the rules and that order is maintained. They are irrationally upset by being late. This is particularly difficult when other siblings don’t share this tendency and are on a ‘go slow’ to cause maximum irritation.

They love having collections of things and, of course, if they start a collection it becomes very important that they complete it. An order-loving child will spend time sorting their toys into various groups, by colour, size, number or type and may line them up in symmetrical patterns or rows. An early ability at maths is a by-product of this.

They tend to love the early years at school. These children may have been quite bewildered by the lack of structure at kindergarten or pre-school but are finally in their element as the day is more time-tabled. It’s paradise for our perfectionists – as long as the schedule is adhered to!

As young children they will copy ‘real’ activities; gardening, shopping, playing ‘house’. Fantasy play is instinctively frowned upon by them unless they are creating a situation that could actually happen. If they do play fairies and super-heroes it is usually because they truly believe they exist or they are aware that, socially, it is the right thing to do. It doesn’t mean that they are enjoying it.

A perfectionist child’s need to ‘get it right the first time’ is over whelming. Making mistakes, coupled with the inevitable criticism, is a nightmare for them. They will put in 110% effort to ensure this does not happen. If, after all this, it still isn’t right, or they receive negative comments, their mood will spiral downwards along with their behaviour. Teaching how to handle criticism is a very important part of parenting this type of child.

As always, life will be particularly difficult if a child is being raised by a parent who is different to them. Because these children like to conform they can be easily upset and embarrassed by their parents whose behaviour is a little ‘off the wall’. I love the story of the little boy who invited a friend over to play after school and he said to his less-than-conventional mother “Now Mum….when Sam comes to play I want you to be normal…just stay in the kitchen – no singing, definitely no dancing…just be normal!!!”. “Don’t worry” said Mum “I’ll be good. I’ll do nothing…in fact, I’ll be just like a plant!” (she spreads her arms out above her head, stretching her fingers out to be branch-like). “Oh boy”, her son cringes, “I knew you’d think of something stupid!”

So, what help do these lovely children need?

Perfectionists need for structure and routine must be supported. When they ask what they are going to do today (as they will inevitably do on any day for which there isn’t already a schedule), they will be hoping for a detailed response. Give them as much information as you can but make allowances for interruptions. Prepare them for the plan but introduce the concept of being open to change if the unexpected happens. In other words, understand their need for order but teach them how to be flexible.

When giving directions make sure you give a step-by-step set of instructions that will give them the maximum opportunity for completing the task perfectly. There are children with certain other temperaments who would find this irritating – not so for these children. They are particularly upset by being asked to ‘jump in at the deep end’. Their preference is to observe, listen to instructions and only perform the task when they believe they can do it well. It is very tempting to rush them. “You’ll be fine…just give it a go!”. Or even “Look at the others, they’re doing it! Why don’t you just join in?” Your child will believe you are setting them up to fail! Instead, teach them new skills slowly and preferably in private, where others can’t see them making mistakes. Ask them to watch you, then they can help you, then you help them, then they do it by themselves. This can be a long process but your patience with them will be rewarded.

When praising all children it is important to praise them for what they value, not what you value. In this case they want you to be realistic and pay particular attention to the details of their work. For example, when looking at a child’s piece of artwork, avoid using general superlatives. “Wow, that’s fantastic, incredible, what a masterpiece!” Instead, give the work your genuine appraisal and notice where they have made an extra effort. “I love the way you’ve drawn the flowers in the window boxes and the mix of colours.”

These children respond well to job lists and star charts. They will, of course, be watching the moves of every other child in the house to make sure there is an even distribution of chores. Their vociferous complaints about this can deceive us into thinking that unless we treat our children precisely the same way that we are being unfair. I encourage you to not be drawn into this fantasy. Your children are all unique. In some circumstances there should be one rule for all – but there is room for exceptions. For example, the consequences you impose for misbehaviour and the rewards for good behaviour depend on the child. They will not all be motivated by the same things.

For order-loving children, their misbehaviour is often in the form of pushing the established boundaries just to make sure they exist. They are relying on you to enforce the rules and their security depends on you doing this consistently.

The typical primary school classroom is heaven to these children. It is familiar, structured and calm and they tend to do well in this environment. They can feel uncomfortable when a known space becomes chaotic, noisy and disrupted. Another situation in which they may have a problem is if they haven’t understood a topic before the teacher moves on to the next. They often need closure before they can move on. Watch out for this and talk to your child about asking for help if he or she hasn’t quite understood. If your child cannot be persuaded to ask then give them a special book to write down anything that they are still confused about from the day. This helps them feel secure in the knowledge that their questions will be answered and their problems will be resolved.

As they move through school the work requires them to be more conceptual as well as factual. They will need to ‘read between the lines’ to get the full meaning of a text. This will be much harder for your perfectionist and it is a good idea to encourage lateral, ‘outside the square’ thinking from an early age.

These lovely children are a gift. They have so much going for them that will propel them to be successful adults. Enjoy them and take care to prepare them for a life that cannot always be planned!

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