Perfectionism, Projects, and Parenting

I used to suffer pretty obvious perfectionism, through a combination of talent and insecurity. When I was in high school, if I couldn’t do something super well, I’d stop bothering to try. University was hard, and as you might imagine, my time there was less than illustrious.

There are elements of perfectionism in my girls, as well. DD8, my Little Fish, is one. She will often bang her head against a problem until she either batters it down through sheer force of will, or melt down in the process. The littlest, my Whistler, is one as well, to a lesser extent. She’ll disengage, watch, learn, slowly gather data, and come at a problem when she’s confident that she can do it more or less right the first time around. Often enough, she’s right on the money when she finally decides to do something. But it makes for slow going.

It’s tough to convince a kid that trying and making mistakes is an okay solution. Even though we try to encourage constructive mistakes, and I’m trying to take my hands off the wheel of many of the things they’re getting old enough to do on their own, sometimes there have to be consequences to mistakes. If you don’t listen to instructions to get ready for school because you’d prefer to spend an extra ten minutes reading, fine. But then don’t expect to have certain privileges or luxuries, like an extra helping of breakfast or a game on the walk to school or for me to help lock up your bikes (combination locks are hard, as it turns out). These are little procedural mistakes that have little, immediate consequences, and I worry sometimes that they send the wrong message.

I’m not going to stop being a disciplinarian or letting the kids run rampant as a result. This is just musing.

My Fish has been working herself extremely hard in school (hard enough for exhaustion to sometimes set in and anxiety to run pretty high) to prepare for standardized testing. Her writing until recently has been slow, laborious, tentative. She’s scared of spelling mistakes.

“How do you spell – ” she’ll say, while working on a short practice text.

“I’m not going to tell you, kiddo. You won’t get help during the test, and this is supposed to show the teacher how you’re doing on your own.”

She grumbles. She’s got a real good grump when she wants to.

“But I know you’ve got a good idea, so you go ahead and write it down. Worry about the spelling later, and just tell your story.”

And you’d better believe we’re going to work on her spelling later, because holy crow you guys, it is pretty bad. But she gets her story written, and the little mistakes don’t mean so much. She has excellent story structure and her ideas are clever and whimsical with a fierce internal logical consistency and attention to detail. I know she’s going to end up as a businessperson or engineer or something to do with numbers, but I wish she’d use that knack for building legitimacy through effort and write some science fiction one day.

But ferocious attention to detail aside, she still has a tough time when her errors are pointed out by the teacher, and it’s tough to get her confidence back from that sting of unfulfilled perfectionism. Never mind that getting the thing done was an achievement in itself, or that it’s an excellent story, or that she had a great time reading it to us when she was done. Being told there’s things wrong with it smarts when you think it’s perfect.

I’m trying to distract her and encourage more recreational writing with a skill I learned through a LOT of trial and error, my drawing. Right now, any time she or her sister writes a story, we illustrate them – they narrate and describe the scenes, and I draw. I’ll start sharing them here when they’re coloured. They’re a ton of fun.

But limited successes and distractions aren’t permanent solutions, so I’m trying another approach as well.

I don’t carry a lot of perfectionism with me any more. Now, years and years out from both high school and university, it’s harder to recognize those perfectionist impulses in myself. I prefer to draft, get immediate feedback, iterate, riff, experiment. I will move fast and break things, biting off more than I can chew, sometimes needing to put something down for a while before coming back to it.

Doing projects has helped me to understand that there’s no such thing as I don’t know how to do this. There’s only I don’t know how to do this yet. I’m lucky to be good at teaching myself to do stuff and to be unprecious enough  about most of my creative work that I can do okay on something, acknowledge it or ditch it when it’s clear that it’s not working, and then just do another thing that’s better. Or go back and fix the first thing when I know better, without pressure, on my own terms. As long as I’m improving, that’s become okay.

One project is my Little Fish’s Sabine Wren costume for Halloween. I never shared the final product here (I realized only recently I never finished my writeup of it), so here it is:

Sabine Wren kids costume


Except she’s holding the helmet in a specific way to hide the fact that, well, it’s a bit of a hot mess:

Sabine Wren kids costume helmet

It’s kind of hard to tell because of the paint job how lumpy it it and how obviously it’s lacking anything resembling a sharp edge. I didn’t use enough resin, didn’t cut the matting small enough, didn’t do a million things that would result in a better product. But it was good enough at the time, and we had a blast with it.

But it could be better, and we knew it from the start. My perfectionism looked me in the eye a couple of days before Halloween and said, “You know, her helmet has much more defined edges than this has.”

But I made a choice: Get it done. And now I’ve made another choice: Make it better.

Bondo Sabine Wren helmet

The girls are helping as we refine the shape and make it more of a filming prop than a Halloween costume. It’ll get there. And I hope that this project will reinforce to my little perfectionists that good can be a great result, as long as you use it as a platform to get to great as you learn more.

Maybe I can’t help my girls entirely defeat their perfectionism, but maybe, like me, they can learn to make it wait.

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