I was busy doing laundry, cleaning up the latest mess (or a much older one), and trying to tune out the screams of a deaf baby who, incidentally, wins the prize for the world's most offensive-to-the-ears cry. Kate wanted a snack. A rice cake with peanut butter. With my free hand, I got the peanut butter jar and bag of rice cakes out of the pantry and set them on the counter in front of her. I handed her a table knife and said, with as much confidence-boosting cheerfulness as I could muster, "Here you go! You can make it yourself!"
"I can't!" she wailed!
"Sure you can," I encouraged, as I went on into the laundry room to start another load.
I reemerged to see her smearing the peanut butter quite satisfactorily on the rice cake, all the while crying over and over, "I can't!"
"Sweetie, you're doing it. Look, you're doing it."
"No, I can't!" she cried, throwing the snack and knife down on the counter and running to bury herself in the couch cushions.
I let her be for a minute, while I fixed myself a rice cake and sat down at the kitchen table, just over a short wall from where Kate sat, barely visible behind the pile of cushions.
"It doesn't have to be perfect, Sweetie."
"Yes it does!"
"My peanut butter isn't perfectly smooth either, but it still tastes good."
"No! Everything you do is perfect, and everything I do is dumb!"
Whoa. How did this happen? I'd seen her get frustrated before, when struggling to hit a badminton birdie or having trouble writing a certain letter or number she has trouble with. I sensed that this was a byproduct of being a very smart, capable child, so easily taking to some things that she doesn't even want to try something she's not immediately good at. She's an emotional kid, struck with melancholy over things we don't even notice, and often can't explain. We've always tried to praise effort, not ability (though, as many proud parents know, that is a tough thing to do sometimes) and let her know we love her unconditionally, but this incident was like a lightning bolt to me as a mom.
A few months later, as I read a book I'd been wanting to check out for a while, it all started to make more sense. The book was The Birth Order Book, by psychologist Kevin Leman. I enjoyed seeing how I was a classic only child (with firstborn characteristics to the extreme), and it was fun seeing how various family members fit their birth order categories (fluid as they are, affected by things like spacing of kids, parenting style, gender of siblings, etc.) but the big payoff was the light this book shed on my family's maternal chain of functional firstborns—my mom (younger than her brother by ten years), me (only child), and Kate (actual firstborn).
Leman's big emphasis for firstborns and onlies is their perfectionism. Apparently, this is because, while younger siblings have the example of older siblings to follow, firstborns have only their parents and other adults to look up to. So, rather than comparing their three-year-old abilities to six-year-old abilities, for example, they are comparing three-year-old or five-year-old or seven-year-old abilities to those of a twenty- or thirty-something. By comparison, they feel uncoordinated, less intelligent, less capable, and altogether imperfect. The rice cake incident was textbook.
"But my firstborn is so messy! You should see her room!" My mom would say this about me, and I could certainly say it about Kate. Leman makes clear that a child's (or adult's) perfectionism does not always manifest itself in neatness or cleanliness. The "discouraged perfectionist," I think he called it, is what results when the perfection we seek is not attainable (and for whom is it really attainable?).
I've put my priorities in order enough to say that family fun, a career, and time for scrapbooking and party-planning are much more important than housekeeping, but if I feel stressed out in the slightest, the first thing to set me off is the sea of stuff all over the floor! I can't find my keys and suddenly the dishtowel on the floor is symbolic of everything I can't control! I remember having terrible anxiety as a young teenager over not knowing how to pay taxes, buy a car, take out a mortgage, things that my parents obviously knew how to do with no trouble. I can identify with this "discouraged perfectionism," and I can see it in my own mom (who Dad and I used to say was "practically perfect in every way!") and I can see it in Kate. Difficulty with a task makes Kate feel like a total failure, and the slightest correction is a grievous offense.
And, as Leman instructs, "flaunt your imperfections." Show the child that, even as an adult, you don't do everything perfectly, and that that's okay. Who doesn't occasionally use a tablespoon of something when the recipe calls for just a teaspoon? Who doesn't accidentally stumble over the words in her kids' bedtime story (especially when she's exhausted and just wants to go to bed herself!)? Rather than just moving on, call attention to what you've done. Show them mistakes are just part of life, and nothing to be ashamed of.
So, as Kate prepares to head off to kindergarten next week, with a whole new set of expectations and assignments, here's what I'm doing to help empower my perfectionist child:
1. Not doing (or re-doing) everything myself. When she does her own hair in a ponytail, with visible tangles and bumps, I will not insist on pulling it out and doing it myself. This is hard for me, because I suffer from the constant assumption that people are judging me. (I kid you not.) So, if my child goes off to school looking messy, I fear that her teacher will think I'm a terrible mother. I have to get over that. Kate knows I will do her hair if she asks, but if she doesn't, I will let it be.
2. Setting her up for success. She'll be wearing uniform clothes to school, so I've put all the school-approved clothes in one drawer. She can dress herself in the morning without any input from me. I got her an alarm clock and showed her how to turn the alarm on and off. I wrote (and illustrated, for easy understanding) a list of the things she needs to do to get ready in the morning and for bed. She's already started following it, and feels proud to take care of herself without prodding from Mommy to do each little thing.
3. Affirming questions and "not knowing." As we prepare for kindergarten, Kate is concerned about not doing her schoolwork perfectly. Among the typical "what-ifs" about finding her classroom and getting lost in the school building, I'm seeing an emphasis on academic concerns already. "What if I don't understand the worksheet and everybody else does?" (Nevermind that in pre-K, she's been the worksheet queen. Nevermind, or because of?) Seeing her fear of embarrassment over asking questions, I vow to affirm her in asking questions and admitting what she doesn't know. I read that Elie Wiesel's mother always asked him after school, "What questions did you ask today?" I'll have to try that. And let her know about my own questions and things I don't understand or need help with.
4. Letting her struggle. Kate was early in learning her letters, loves to write down words she knows (and words she doesn't know, transcribing pages of a book just for fun), and loves to identify words that she knows if she spots them on a sign. But as she gets closer to actual reading, I notice her anxiety about trying to read things she doesn't already know pretty well. She'll decline to read at bedtime, or to attempt the little poems and things in her Highlights "High Five" magazine. When she's reading, I need to wait as long as she needs, wait until she asks me, before jumping in with the correct word. When she's doing her homework, I need to offer only the help she asks for, refusing to do it for her or handhold her on every task.
In all these things, I will affirm her efforts and her enthusiasm. And I will affirm her kindness and compassion even more than I affirm her homework and hairdressing efforts. It's tough to parent a driven, strong-willed, perfectionist firstborn, but by being aware of my own perfectionism, I can empower her to do (and be happy with) her best.