Dear Dr. Heather,
Danny talks about his son, who is only a year younger than mine, having a propensity for tears. Our son is very similar. He is a budding perfectionist (as his mom was) and gets stormy when he can't do things right on the first few tries. It really, really bothers his dad, who was teased unmercifully by other kids when he was young and did the same thing. Danny mentioned that he tries to work through those moments with the Champ, and I was kind of hoping you might get him to share some of those specifics or some of your own. (I believe he did blog at one point about trying to make the Champ laugh when he saw such a situation arising in baseball, but if you or he have any other hands-on solutions, I would love to hear them!)
In one sense we are lucky, because being somewhat overly concerned with success has not kept him from trying things, as it did me. But it took me 20 years to learn that I didn't have to do everything perfectly to enjoy it, and I am hoping we can significantly shorten the learning curve for my son.
Donna, Rossville, KS
I have a five-year-old who's a real perfectionist too (he comes by it naturally, like your son). Sometimes he does give up trying when it's difficult -- that real danger your son has sidestepped, so that's a great start already. As long as they don't give up and keep trying, what you're really asking about, I guess, is the stormy emotional reaction.
Does his reaction get him into trouble, say at school, or with his friends, like what happened to his dad? Or is the real problem your worry about his future possible perfectionism -- and his Dad's worry about his tears? Because there are different approaches, depending on where the problem lies.
If his emotional reactions DO get him into trouble, talk with him about what to do with his feelings, instead of breaking down. Make sure he knows that his feelings are always OK, but it's how we handle them that matters. Make a plan ahead of time, when he's feeling good. Practice some things that he can do instead: take three deep breaths (practice with him and you can make it a silly game). Help him find words for his frustration. "I wish I could do it right! It makes me so mad! " Et cetera.
If he's doing well and it's really more of your worries, remember, he's young. You might want to observe his classroom; I'll bet there are a couple of other kids in his class who are similar. You might even ask his teacher about it; they have lots of experience in dealing with all sorts of kids, and often have insights that we as parents don't.
His perfectionism can really be an asset -- I'll bet you have found a way to make it work for you. Help him channel his energies into being productive and successful at what he loves.