Perfectionism. We hear this word repeatedly, especially when working with gifted students. According to the National Association of Gifted Children, ~20% of gifted children suffer from perfectionism to the degree it causes problems. While striving to do our best is not bad, when it overtakes the why and enjoyment of activities, it can cause a problem.
Social Researcher Brene Brown has studied a lot about perfectionism and what it is and isn’t. In her book “The Gifts of Imperfections,” she states, “Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception—we want to be perceived as perfect.”
This makes me think long and hard about how we speak to our gifted students. Are we only praising them when they succeed? When they don’t achieve perfect scores on academic assignments, how do we talk to them? What messages are we sending our students? Don’t we want children everywhere to try new things even if they fail the first, second, or even a hundred times? When a child thinks they must be perfect at something to enjoy it, this will ultimately lead them not to take risks on anything in life.
Here are some steps to help our gifted students deal with perfectionism.
- Talk to them about your own mistakes. As educators, students often think we have never made a mistake in our own lives. Have age-appropriate conversations about our mistakes and failures and how they helped us grow and lead to future successes.
- The process is more important than the outcome. Often a gifted student will think of how something should look when it is completed, and if it doesn’t look that way, they will be defeated. Sit with them while working on something and talk through the process, asking questions about why they are doing something different. This will help them realize that the process is as important as the outcome. Explain to them that results don’t always look the way we expected them to, but that is ok and why the process is essential.
- Laugh! When it sometimes goes awry, laugh with them. Children will always look to the adult first to react. If you’re working with your gifted child and you make a mistake, you must laugh with them first, so they know it is ok to that a mistake was made. Then talk with them about what happened.
- Don’t make being a perfect part of their identity. This can be hard with gifted students who often excel, especially academically. Reward them for their excellent work but not so much that they think anything less than 100% on a grade means they are not good enough. This is especially important as they get older and are exposed to a more challenging curriculum.
- Set limits with your gifted child. Whether that is a time limit, a word count, or a problem count, setting hard defined limits will help children from becoming hyper-focused and help them learn about setting boundaries. At first, this will be a challenge as your child will want to continue to work but helping them know that it’s ok to take breaks and come back to something will help them in the long run.
I hope these tips can help you a little bit. I also want to reiterate that striving for healthy growth and success is not the same as perfectionism. We want to be the best version of ourselves, and we want the next generation to be the best version of themselves, but we must work towards this healthily. As Brene Brown says, “ stay awkward, brave, and kind.”