Toddler Behavior: "Perfectionism" in A 2-Year Old?

Longtime reader Katie has asked me about her baby before. But now that her daughter is an honest-to-goodness toddler, there are new questions about perfectionism. Babies don't care about "the rules" -- toddlers do. And so a new struggle with "doing it right -- by myself" begins: "I DO IT MYSSEF!"

Dear Dr. Heather,

For the past few nights my daughter has insisted on putting her pajamas on herself. This would be great, except she can't quite get it by herself and ends up getting really frustrated. However, she gets even more angry and upset when I try to help her. I end up being torn between my desire to let her learn to do it herself and my desire to get her to bed at a decent hour. Usually she genuinely needs a few small helps to get the pajamas on, but I try to let her do as much as possible by herself.

This also is a symptom of a larger problem - what I perceive to be a growing perfectionism on her part. For example, if one cheerio from her bowl falls on the floor she will not eat another one until it is picked up. She also is very definite about using the right words for things - she just corrected me that the noise we heard was an "airplane" not a "plane." Having struggled with perfectionism myself, I worry a lot that I might pass it on to my daughter, or that she might spontaneously develop it on her own since she seems to have that kind of personality. Do you have any advice that might help?


Hi Katie,

Your daughter is just now learning that things can be done "just so". She didn't care before, and she's experimenting with it now. It's totally common and normal. It's also part of the control trip that goes along with toddlerhood. Just how far can she take this control thing? She's exploring those boundaries. It's also part of her growing sense of independence -- wanting to do it herself. A good thing, yes?

But it's not always possible for her do it herself. So, the advice is -- allow her to do it her way, WHEN IT IS REASONABLE. Give her options and choices ahead of time to try to limit the struggles that may come up. You are totally allowed to step in and be the boss when you need to -- don't feel bad about it, just matter-of-fact. But allow her the independence when you can. For rituals that take forever and get in the way of other activities: plan in advance -- give her a lot of extra time in the evening for putting on jammies, and give her a lot of praise for getting steps right herself. Try to leave her to her own devices to explore her skills. Tell her to ask you for help when she gets frustrated, but don't go overboard and do the whole thing for her. She may end up frustrated anyway, but that's OK. Rescue her when she's at her limit. I think you might also be nervous about some kind of impending red flag for perfectionism, because of your own history and tendencies. Rest assured that it's normal at this age. You have the opportunity to help her live with imperfection, as well as to explore her new skills. If she is suffering from it when she is starting school, then you can start to wonder if she might need some intervention. But for now -- it sounds fine.

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink