“He’s kind of a perfectionist,” A’s first-grade teacher told us around this time last year. We were a month into the school year, just about time for the first substantive teacher feedback to start trickling in, and sure enough, the tears were getting a label: the dreaded, misunderstood, p-word.  “If he doesn’t get it right the first time, there’s a lot of crying and frustration,” she added.

I’m sure I did the same eyebrow knitting I do when words like decimate get misused, and A’s teacher might have mistaken that for perfectionism concern. In reality, I’m more concerned about balancing the very necessary rewards for first efforts – because all first efforts are good – with the awareness that our first efforts aren’t always correct or complete. And I’m concerned that the term perfectionism is starting to linguistically ‘leak,‘ just as ‘decimate’ has – it’s taking on water as this alternate, first-efforts-are-final-efforts concept begins to hijack it.

It’s important, though, that my kids understand what perfectionism is, and what it’s not, and being one month into the school year now – and seeing the p-word resurface again in some conversations – I’m working to plug some of those linguistic ‘leaks.’ Perfectionism is not expecting your first efforts to be perfect. Perfectionism is working away at something, sometimes far past the point of relevance or real return (at least from a third-party perspective) in an effort to make it perfect. Perfectionists don’t expect their first drafts or their initial pen-and-ink study or their first run at a new recipe or their first try at a martial arts kata to be perfect; in fact, most can scarcely stand their first-effort results, and immediately want to try again. And again. And again. Perfectionists are dragged away from their nth efforts kicking and screaming.

There are two associated problems for gifted kids.  Either they often become perfectionists – real perfectionists, of the kicking-and-screaming variety – before they’re emotionally ready to handle it, or their capabilities outrun their age-specific need for first-effort finality and they become jaded by gobs of that’s-great-honey. What’s to be done about either? The issue of handling perfectionism at an early age has been handled elegantly elsewhere, so I’ll focus on the second issue in this post.

Balancing first-effort praise and second-(third-fourth-nth-)effort encouragement is a challenge for gifted kids, whose abilities often vastly outstrip their emotional intelligence in dealing with the concept of staged improvement in a skill. As I said above, all first efforts are good, because they represent interest put into action with a purpose in mind. And, for years with little kiddos, what we encourage is not the end product, but the process that led to it. I have a vast bin of artwork in the unfinished area of our basement, and whenever the occasion has arisen to look through it – usually while cleaning up/cleaning out – I’ll be damned if I can tell what even half of them are. One’s an obvious piggyback ride; another is some animal drinking water in a field. This one’s clearly our house. But most are just stick figures in some sort of landscape, doing something. And they always make me smile. I know, for certain, what I said to each one as I received it: some variant of ‘that’s beautiful!’ Most have hung on our Artists in Residence clip hanger in our kitchen at one point or another, regardless of whatever objective, jury-reviewed artistic merit they displayed; they were done in the all-first-efforts-are-good era of my kids’ lives.

But there’s a point, isn’t there, where we begin to transition from first-efforts-as-final-efforts to first-efforts-as-exploration. I don’t bring a new, never-tested dish to the table and proudly announce that the family should stand back, lest they be overwhelmed by its culinary awesomeness; in general, I usually find it a teaspoon’s-worth too salty, or just a bit too dry, or potentially improved by a smidge more fresh basil. I approach my first drafts of books and professional work with a gimlet eye, looking for areas that can be improved, and thus it is with everything: from golf swings to guitar fretting, just about everything in our lives can be made 5% better or so, and most of us are looking to improve on things here and there. Not everything; but most of us do find that our passion areas merit more ongoing scrutiny of action than our day-to-day activities do.

Now, take those two points – ‘that’s beautiful!’ at one end and the endless self-critique we all undertake as adults at the other – as endpoints on a continuum and consider, for a moment, when we began to transition from one to the other. Then consider that there is a real possibility, for your gifted children, that their intellectual capacity is ahead of their emotional maturity. In other words, their work may be ready for second-effort encouragement before they’re emotionally able to process the fact that not all first efforts are final efforts. Which end of the continuum do you default to? Leaving first-as-final in place too long stunts growth in academics, athletics, and the arts; starting first-as-beginning too early can easily crush too-tender sensibilities and cut off avenues of potential exploration.

Case in point: when E was in third grade, she was regularly writing work that would be graded well at the eighth-grade or even ninth-grade level. But giving E a ‘4’ – the highest grade possible – did nothing for her; if anything, it may have hindered her progress as a writer. Telling her she achieved perfection within the context of a third-grade classroom isn’t motivating her to use any more of her skill set than she already has; what would she have gotten as a grade if she had? A nonexistent ‘5’? What E needed was a ‘3’ at the ninth-grade level – a clear message of where her work arrived at the point of needing additional effort to be considered ‘good.’ She’s getting those grades now as a part-time high-school freshman at Northwestern CTD, and finding out just what it feels like – in a good way – to want to exert additional effort in the pursuit of mastering more complex skills. That doesn’t mean that those learning moments aren’t painful to watch sometimes; she’s not used to effort at this level, and sometimes, even her best efforts don’t merit a top grade anymore. She knows it, and she can increasingly shrug off tough algebra tests and challenging writing assignments, because she knows she put her best efforts into them.

Yet regardless of what they’re doing, or what stage of a project they’re in, I’ve found that all of their efforts merit praise, as all effort should, and this has led to my new philosophy: encourage all effort. First effort. Second effort. Third effort. Nth effort. Encourage more. Encourage rich and deep and exploratory. This lasagna was great! I wonder what it would taste like if we made it as a dessert with mascarpone instead of ricotta. Or in a cone. Or on the grill. Your story was really interesting; I found myself wondering what happened next and would love to read more and learn more about this character or that. If there’s passion behind the first effort, encouragement will bring out more. If there wasn’t…well, we don’t care that everything in our lives to be perfect; at least, I don’t.  I realize that the amount of effort necessary to make perfect coffee every morning, for example, or do a perfectly energy-efficient lunchtime walk, would far exceed the reward. Perhaps what I want to teach them is to save perfectionism for their passions – and to make sure they find a place in their lives for their passions to occupy. Because, in the end, there can be joy in perfectionism – for all the negative freight the word has taken on – and while I don’t push perfectionism in our home, who am I to deny them the undeniably giddy, satisfied sensation of perfecting something, if that is their goal?


Dave and Kathy Mayer blog at Chasing Hollyfeld.


6 thoughts on “That Word…I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

  1. Thank you for reminding me of the true definition of “Perfectionist.” I may have missed it, though I looked a second time in your post, what then, would be the more accurate definition for someone who freaks out if their first efforts aren’t perfect (assuming they are well over two years of age)?

    Thank you for sharing your experience with your older daughter and her writing scores. We have been going through a similar situation with our 11-year-old. I am hoping that being in Advanced Language Arts now that she is in Middle School will help her to be willing to put more effort into her stories. Though she was already going above and beyond what her teachers were requiring of her, I was noticing how little time she spent on some of those assignments and have always felt she could put more effort into it and do even better, even though it wasn’t required. She just likes that she doesn’t have to spend much time on homework so she can spend more time playing Minecraft :-/

  2. Donna, I think that ‘freaking out over first efforts’ reaction is very common to gifted kids, especially those that have had a fairly easy time of things; when your first efforts usually do produce the results required, you don’t really get into the habit of expecting more from yourself. That’s what makes those freakout moments so valuable to parents. They’re diagnostic of a situation where you’ve pushed your child a little further out of his/her comfort zone, as we did with A last fall, and with E and H this year. If you’d like to read more about our experiences with that, Kathy just published a post on Chasing Hollyfeld called Planet of the As.

  3. Wow, yes. I’m so glad we’re exploring this topic here. My eldest is sometimes very hard on herself. She’s a freshman in college now and she hated that her best last week wasn’t very good in her eyes and i just told her there’s an adjustment period. Everybody is coping with all the new stuff as well so none of her peers are going to feel really satisfied in their efforts either, at first but that she’ll get used to this new level of skill involved, plus commuting, plus work, everybody gets very tired sometimes but she’ll get stronger. She’s an Art Major so she has a Backpack, a Huge portfolio or two and a toolbox with artist supplies in it. She and I both caught some definition she’s getting already in her bicep area. She gets it. She’s like “Game on!”. Its a nice contrast to the crying jag of a couple days earlier. Never a dull one around here, that’s for sure. 😀

  4. As a high school teacher, the part I am pondering is how to provide that encouragement to gifted students in a regular class, instead of just awarding A and A+ grades. I’m not sure how to do that within the constraints of our education system, but I know how important it is as a person who definitely used to not give my best efforts because it was not demanded of me until college. Any suggestions?

    1. Emily, I think the best thing you can do is to be an advocate for acceleration where it makes sense. The Iowa Acceleration Scale exists for a reason, but we still see a tremendous amount of resistance to partial and whole-grade acceleration on the part of teachers because of a fear of the child failing in the next grade up. Not that this is an educator-specific issue; too many parents are content to allow their kids to coast and pick up easy – but meaningless – A’s rather than try harder work that carries the risk of (gasp) a B. (Coincidentally…we’ve got a post up on that very subject today over on Chasing Hollyfeld.)

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