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Gifted Kids and Perfectionism

Perfectionism is an extremely common issue with gifted children.  Wiser people than me have already written great information on this already.  But here’s a very recent example of how perfectionism causes problems in my own family.

My son Bruce(6.5) forgot his math binder at school yesterday.  This prompted him to have a mini freak-out, even though I calmly explained that we could go online and print out his homework without any problem.  Well, not according to Bruce!  The homework that prints out from our computer is not in the exact format as his homework workbook, thus it looks decidedly different and is therefore unacceptable according to Bruce.  Intense discussion ensued. 

The resolution was that Bruce was willing to do the printed out homework, but unwilling to turn it in.  He would rather take his lumps than turn in weirdly formatted homework.  Not only that, but under no circumstances would Bruce allow me to email his teacher to let her know that he had in fact completed his homework.

This is where the story reaches crazy on a multigenerational level.  It took me about two minutes before I realized that I myself was extremely uncomfortable with Bruce’s teacher thinking that I allowed him to skip his homework!   What type of derelict person will she think I am?  She knows that I know perfectly well that I could print it off of the computer.  Oh my gosh, I can hardly stand not sending that email!  I can feel the tension building up inside me, even though from an intellectual standpoint, I know that I am being neurotic and need to let it go.  But try telling that to a perfectionist.

When I was in third grade I had horrible issues with perfectionism.  Reportedly, I once told my mother that “From now on Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be perfect.  Have you noticed how clean my room is lately?” My parents, who at the time didn’t know about the damage perfectionism causes in gifted people, thought my new attitude was great.   Luckily, my third grade teacher Mrs. McClintock came to my rescue.  In a conference with my parents she came down pretty harsh, and said in no uncertain terms that perfectionism in gifted children should not be encouraged.  It is psychologically damaging.

The answer of how to deal with all of this is still something that my whole family struggles with.  My extended family struggles with it too.  You should see how clean my sister in law’s house is!  I think the advice that has helped me the most is something I heard at the 2011 SENG conference.  It was to frequently use the phrase “That’s good enough,” both with your children and yourself.  Modeling this cognitive behavior is really important for kids.  Example: “This cake I baked isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough.”  This is advice that I have really taken to heart.  The more that my children hear me say that it’s okay not to be perfect, the better it will be for our whole family.


  1. Jean says:

    Oh my goodness, I am not sure I could manage to not email the teacher.

    We had terrible perfectionist problems with my oldest when she was about 6 or so. When she got a math problem wrong, she would cry and wail that she didn’t want anyone to see it. (We homeschool. No one is going to see it but me!) Utter freakouts over missed problems, or when a concept didn’t click in the first 5 seconds.

    I love the ‘good enough’ advice!

  2. Claire H. says:

    My kids get sick of hearing me point out how even the best baseball players get out about twice as often as they get a hit. Does [insert name of favorite player, in our case Big Papi, David Ortiz of the Red Sox] have a meltdown when he strikes out? No. He just tries again the next time he’s up at bat.

    It takes a while, but my 9 y.o. is doing much better at coping with mistakes now than she was at age 6.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      That’s a good tip –for other families. Nobody would know who any of those players were in our household. 🙂

      • Claire H. says:

        It would probably be the same if someone used a football or basketball reference in our house 🙂

  3. Hi Jenbrdsly,
    Interesting Post, Would a child who displays these characteristics be potentially gifted:

    An amazing aptitude for learning and memorizing facts and things that interest him/her
    A good memory
    Ability to carry on an intelligent conversation with adults from a young age
    Superior reasoning skills
    Extensive vocabulary
    Often asks questions, even if the questions have no easy answer
    Loves to read
    Does very well in school
    Is easily stressed
    Sets high standards for him/herself
    Difficulty relating to peers
    Very sensitive
    Very high academic achevier
    Challenges authority

    Would you say this child is potentially gifted?
    I look forward to your next post

    • jenbrdsly says:

      I can’t tell if this comment is SPAM or not, so what does that say about my own IQ?

      But, this list is interesting. A lot these things are standard attributes of gifted children, but sometimes they can be the opposite too. Some gifted kids for example, might do poorly in school because they are tuning out, not engaged, or else hiding their abilities and trying to blend in. Also, some gifted kids might seem to be low achievers, because they are such perfectionists that they hesitate to even try because they are afraid of not being perfect.

      • Claire H. says:

        There are also the highly gifted kids who struggle because they see multiple correct answers given different assumptions and they get paralyzed because they don’t know which one the teacher wants (even though it’s “obvious” to a child who is more moderately gifted or just garden-variety bright).

      • jenbrdsly says:

        Very true.

  4. Hey Jenbrdsly,
    I know what you mean, I’ve been dealing with a lot of social anxiety ever since I was in grade one (I’ve graduated high school now) and it seems like a lot of problems with perfectionism. I don’t feel like I’m a perfectionist, because if I were — I would be more perfect than I am. But everybody tells me I have really high expectations.

    Since last November, when my boyfriend and I went through a rough spell, he found somebody else for a short period of time, and to maintain some sort of control on the situation and how I felt, I started dieting, and began eating less than 800 calories a day. My metabolism basically halted, and now I’ve only lost 15 pounds (although, luckily, brought my intake back up to 1200.. even though I feel terrible about it.)

    I also have a lot of trouble concentrating on school assignments, and when I go back to school in the fall, I’m afraid I’ll get depressed and lose all focus. I was one of those ‘gifted kids’ when I was younger, but now, I just feel like an underachiever.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      Thank you for sharing. I have seen so many gifted people struggle with stress and anxiety, that I cannot even begin to tell you. The transition to college can be especially hard for gifted people, because all of a sudden the rules of your life have radically changed. If you are a person who is used to feeling good about yourself because you are used to meeting and exceeding a set of expectations, and now those parameters are wildly different, then that can spell trouble. When you graduate from college and have to establish yourself in a profession, you get slammed again. One of my sorority sisters use to call the early twenties “The Wastelands”, but now in her thirties she has a supper successful career as a globetrotting travel host.

      I think that the trick in navigating the late teens-early 20s, is learning that you are responsible for yourself; that nobody else is going to rescue you, that happiness is a choice instead of a state of being, and that you have all the resources you need within yourself to forge a life that is bigger and better than anyone else could possibly dream for you.

      I’m not a nutrition expert (Claire, please pipe in if you are reading this), but I think you should have the number 1800 in your head, not 1200. It’s okay to eat. You deserve to be well fed!

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