Preschool Perfectionism

Ya know how most preschoolers demand their independence?  How they’d prefer to struggle for 20 minutes to zip up a jacket, just so they could say they did it?  The screaming refrains of “I do it myself!” echoing through the halls?

Yeah.  Chimp doesn’t do that.  In fact, he does quite the opposite.  Instead of 20 minutes fumbling with pudgy hands trying to Velcro on light-up Batman shoes, we have 20 minutes of Chimp crying, “No!  You put on my shoes, mommy!  You do it!”  Despite being quite capable and practiced in these skills, Chimp regularly refuses to independently (or with mom standing nearby):  dress himself, toilet himself, brush his teeth, put on his hat, put on his boots, put on his jacket, get himself cereal, get himself water, and the list could go on. 

I used to believe this was just baby-of-the-family syndrome.  Chimp’s just showing that he wants to keep his treasured place as the little guy.  Or that he is just showing that he needs more mommy time in the only way a 4-year-old can.  Or that it is simply Murphy’s Law that my final child, born from a “geriatric” pregnancy to a mom of “advanced maternal age” has to be the one who doesn’t want to grow up.  I was only 35 when he was born, but still, I’m getting tired.  And why is it that when I’m near to the other side of 40, I have a child who moves more, talks more, and doesn’t want to do anything by himself?  I could deal with that when I was in my 20’s or early 30’s.  NOW?  The third time around?  After aiding with thousands of boots and shoes and pants and 10 years of wiping bums, I just want the kid to be self—sufficient!  So – naturally, the universe thinks it’s funny to give me a child who wants to stay mom-sufficient as long as possible.

Truth be told, it could be all those things.  I’m sure Chimp enjoys his spot as the baby and is smart enough to enjoy the excuse of being the youngest and “not knowing any better.”  When Cub was frustrated with something he did, Chimp batted his eyelashes and said, “I’m only four; just a little guy.”

And, he definitely could use more mommy time.

But, an epiphany occurred to me a few days ago.  A big part of this behavior is the preschool version of perfectionism.  Groan, it’s started.  He’s generally so happy-go-lucky that I thought he wouldn’t have to struggle with perfectionism, but there it was, staring me in the face.

He was doing his usual fit and tearfully demanding that mom do it.  I tried to help him regulate, he refused, so I left him to scream it out for a few moments.  When I returned, he cried with as much distress as I’ve seen from him, “But, mom!  I don’t want to do it!  Sometimes I forget how!”  His little face looked crushed.  And my heart felt crushed.  Poor little buddy.

Let’s be clear, I take my role as facilitator, teacher, coach, and guide for my children very seriously.  I never would have just yelled at him to do something that I knew he was still learning and leave.  I was standing right with him.  I’d told him he got to try first, and then I’d help after.  I was within arms reach and have a history of verbally talking him through new skills.  So, he wasn’t reacting because I was demanding anything ridiculous from him.  He was reacting because he had ridiculous demands of himself.  At 4.  Well, in all honesty, at 2.  He’d already set the expectation that he should be taught something once, and get it.  He’d already believed that mistakes and needing reminders were intolerable.  To the point that he’s throwing long fits to avoid doing a task that might be somewhat, kinda difficult.

This is SO common in our gifted kids.  They don’t know that learning is supposed to be hard.  They don’t know that they are supposed to get frustrated and forget how to do things and feel confused.  They think learning is the same thing as knowing.  And I know what to expect in my older kids, teens, and young adults when they’re confronted with actual learning.   I know what signs to look for:  they quit, they say they’re too stupid to do it, they think something’s wrong with them, they say they just aren’t a Math person, they call it boring, they give up, show frustration, they refuse to try.  Apparently, when preschoolers confront this unrealistic understanding of learning and perfection, they throw temper tantrums, they refuse to do it, they throw things, scream, cry, insist that someone else do it, quit, give up, run away.

What do we do?  We explain that brains are supposed to sweat when they are learning something new.  We explain that mistakes and frustrations are part of learning and success.  We explain that we will help for as long as they need it.  We set appropriate expectations.  We see past the surface behavior and figure out what’s underneath.  We share our own learning processes.  We show compassion.  We show acceptance.  We show confidence that they’ll be able to deal with the discomfort and keep working.  We continue to encourage them to do it themselves, with us standing nearby.

That day, I saw Chimp’s behaviors through a difference lens.  I immediately said, “Well, of course you forget sometimes!  That’s because you’re still learning!”  He was able to look up at me as his shoulders dropped.  Full of hope, he said, “weally?”  I nodded.  Gave him a hug.  Explained how learning works.  Told him I love him.  He tried the new skills with me verbally coaching him through it.  I repeated it.  I told him how proud I was that he could calm himself and try again.  And I prepared to have the same conversation all over again in 15 minutes.