by Martha Tyler
I am a recovering perfectionist. Many of the caregivers I know are also wrestling in some way with perfectionism. It’s insidious and pops up in some of the most surprising places.
I was working with a child in my care and he asked if we could look at his treasures that he had collected. We looked and explored them together and I asked if he wanted to sort them into categories. He was very excited about that idea so I got out some paper and markers for us to sort them. He decided to sort by color first. I set to work drawing a chart that we could sort onto. While I was creating a perfect chart, my 4 year old kiddo began schooling me by just starting. He would sort them into a little pile and draw his chart around the pile. After 5 or so minutes, I looked up to see that he had sorted most of his treasures already and I was only halfway done making my chart. He was just doing it – just starting and seeing where it went from there.
So much of our jobs as caregivers is getting out of our kid’s way. . .getting out of our own way. I know I often use the wrong measuring stick for myself, and, honestly, for the kids in my care too sometimes. I measure them against others instead of against their own progress. And progress isn’t linear, for kids or adults. Brené Brown says in her fantastic book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” We want the best for our kids and, in doing that, we can sometimes fall prey to the trappings of perfectionism.
How do we break this false need to be perfect? I’ll include a few ideas that have helped me in the journey, but there’s no checklist or specific steps to follow so you’re free to chart your own path. It’s not a one-size-fits-all type of journey. Please take what serves you and leave what doesn’t. Give yourself compassion when you are lured back to perfectionism. And in the words of one of my favorite teachers, Ms. Frizzle, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”
- Just Start. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from working with kids for almost 20 years is how they just start. Sure, there are times when having a plan or mapping out a whole process is helpful. There are also times when we spend so much effort on planning we become overwhelmed to the point of being paralyzed to start. We freeze. If you’re stuck in a cycle of planning, just start.
- Lower The Bar. Lower than that. Keep going. Yes, that low. We know you care about the well-being of your kids. You want them to thrive in the world. You wouldn’t be reading articles about how to help them if you didn’t care. We all have off days. We all can’t perform, in all areas, at 100% every day. Cut yourself some slack and cut your kids even more slack. To break away from perfectionism, we must allow ourselves and our kids to be fully human. Some days that means you cuddle and watch movies all day. Some days that means the chores don’t get done. Find the balance between growth in areas and demanding 100% every day.
- Model Making Mistakes. It is so important for kids to see us – their trusted caregivers – make mistakes. When you do make a mistake, pay attention to how you talk about it in front of your child. Do you beat yourself up? Do you make fun of yourself? Now think about how you want your child to speak to themselves when they make mistakes. Do you want them to have self-compassion? Whatever you imagine your child ideally saying or doing in the moments after a mistake, model that for them! They will do as we do much more often than they will do as we say.
- Let Your Child Lead. This one can be so hard. Children don’t learn from doing it correctly right from the start. They learn by trying something and seeing that it doesn’t work. If you are guiding them from the start, they don’t have the opportunity to build the confidence of figuring something out themselves. Give them space and time to tackle a new skill even if it’s not the way you would do it. Heck, they might even find a better way, like my little guy did with the sorting. If you struggle with this one, a tip is to ask as many questions as you can. “What do you think will happen when we let the marble go down the shoot?” or “Which color do you want to start with?” A rule of thumb that works for me is if the child isn’t hurting themselves, another person, or the environment around them, let them do it.
Perfectionism can rob so much from us, if we let it. It can keep us mired in a holding pattern that doesn’t serve anyone. Follow your child’s lead and go towards the laughter and the mess. That’s where a life lived to the fullest happens. It happens in the moments that are perfectly imperfect.
If this is an area you struggle with, welcome to life! Second, we can help because we’ve been there too. Book a one-on-one coaching session with us at Compassionate Childcare today! We can help!