Friday, January 15, 2010


One of the most interesting things about Lisa Rivero's gifted education workshop is that she encourages parents to examine themselves for gifted traits. Giftedness rarely occurs in a vacuum; if a child is gifted, chances are one of both parents are too.

Indeed, like my oldest son, I'm an emotionally sensitive person. My mother frequently described my brain as too big for my body and I always had a large and impressive vocabulary. I also struggle with perfectionism.

Because gifted kids are so good at so many things, they often expect everything to be easy. When it's not, they may become frustrated. And to avoid such unpleasantness in the future, they may refuse to try new activities. Better to be good at your strengths, the thinking goes, than to be exposed as mediocre.

The problem is that such perfectionism becomes stifling. Instead of expanding their horizons, some gifted kids become trapped in a box of their own making. I was always an academically talented child, but I was not athletically inclined. (Yes, I was the kid who got Bs and Cs in gym.) My 8th grade year, though, I decided I wanted to join the volleyball team. Almost every other girl in my class played and I wanted to play too. On the day of the first practice, I biked to school, dressed and ready. But I couldn't make myself go in. My fear of failure -- my fear of not being good at volleyball -- was greater than my desire to play. To this day, I avoid team sports.

Perfectionism in gifted kids can also result from minds that grow faster than bodies. Many gifted kids can envision elaborate projects, but lack the physical or social skills to see such plans to fruition. When the real-life project fails to meet their expectations, they may explode in a rage.

Handling such perfectionism is a challenge for the parent, especially if the parent is a former gifted child who struggles with perfectionism his- or herself. One of the most important things you can do is let your child see you as less than perfect. Try things outside of your comfort zone. Let your child see that you are good at some things, and less-good at others. Let him see you having fun, even when you're less than the best. Those non-verbal messages will speak volumes.

Also let your child see you handle setbacks. If you spill while cooking or make a mistake in a painting project, how do you react? If you explode, become frustrated or quit, chances are your child will too. If your child sees you take a deep breath before adapting to the new situation, he too may learn how to deal with simple setbacks.

Be sure to value the whole child. Gifted children have a number of gifts, of which we are understandably proud. But a child is more than his talents and deserves to be loved as a human being, not just a conglomeration of gifts. Spend time nuturing your child's other interests. Enjoy his company. Love him, unconditionally.

Encourage your child to try new activities, and praise any and all efforts to step out of his comfort zone. Even if he "fails," remind him that he's learned something simply by trying the new activity. Also be sure to let him know that practice equals improvement. (Please, stay away from "practice makes perfect.") No one is great at everything the first time around.

Finally, point out the positive. Many gifted kids are acutely aware of the flaws in their work, and will deem an entire project a "disaster" because of one tiny flaw. Help them pull back and see the bigger picture. Ask them what they like about the project. Ask them what they learned. Help your child celebrate his accomplishments and encourage him to see mistakes as learning-in-progress.

Do you have any tips for dealing with perfectionism?


  1. I had similar experiences, not wanting to participate in sports or anything else I felt I wasn't good at. I still do, but now I am trying to set the example for my son that trying something new, even if you aren't the best at it, is a good thing, especially with sports and physical activities. My husband just read, and is going to make me read, Mindset by Carol Dweck. It addresses some of what you wrote about above -- be willing to try something different and seeing failure as opportunity rather than an ending. What you said about seeing practice as a way to improve is right in line with what the book is preaching, I think. I'll be able to say for sure once I actually read it. It also addresses how to praise people, by focusing on the effort (you tried really hard at that) rather than the talent (you are so smart).

  2. Another book I need to add to my reading list! I'm trying to do the same thing you are, Nancy -- setting examples by trying new things, even things I'm not good at. I'll be honest: it's been hard for me. But the blessing of being a mother is that I'm willing to do almost anything for my kids, so if my doing something makes them laugh or feel better about themselves, so be it.

  3. What a wonderful and thoughtful post! It is so hard to look at ourselves and our children in an objective way. Your points about setting a good example for children and letting them see you as imperfect are spot on! This month I am looking into perfectionism and its curious relationship to organization, which you might be interested to read.