Last week on Instagram, I posted a picture that started a conversation about the challenges of doing art with kids who have perfectionist tendencies. The issue seemed to resonate with quiet a few moms, so I thought it deserved further discussion.
I have 2 kids, and one is a perfectionist. He was so afraid of making mistakes, that he literally would not use scissors for about 2-3 months when he was 4 years old because it was too frustrating for him not to be able to cut a perfect line.
I tried everything I could to help him understand that the way to cut straight lines with scissors is to practice, and cut a lot of crooked lines first. That didn't help.
I told him how nobody is ever perfect at something the first few times they try it. That didn't help.
I tried to make up a lot of fun cutting games where accuracy was not important. That didn't help.
During this time he happened to have a well child visit, and I mentioned it to his doctor, who is amazing, compassionate, and has a lifetime of experience working with kids. He just calmly nodded his head, and asked if anyone else at home was a perfectionist. Lightbulb moment!! It hadn't even occurred to me that he saw me being the perfectionist that I am, and as kids do, he was imitating me. I had never (consciously) expected him to do things perfectly, but I did expect that of myself. He picked up on that, and applied it to himself. Kids are amazingly observant.
Once I learned the source of the issue, my focus became shifting his (and my) thoughts about perfectionism. The first thing I did was to casually point out all of the little mistakes I made throughout the day. I wanted him to know that I was okay with making mistakes, and that I could just brush them off and move forward.
"Oops, looks like I spilled a little cereal. Oh well, I'll just clean that up real quick."
"Oh, no! I forgot to get strawberries at the store yesterday. Let's go and pick some up."
"I think I accidentally put your pajamas in the wrong drawer. Let's fix it."
These were all real mistakes, I wasn't going around trying to mess up on purpose to prove a point. I wanted to be genuine in all my interactions, so I just became hyper-aware of my daily tasks, and just casually mentioned when I had done something wrong. Then showed how it was no big deal to try again.
I also read numerous blog posts and articles about other parents who had similar issues. The best advice I heard from them was to read books about making mistakes, and how nobody is perfect. So, I made a big list and we headed for the library. These were my favorites:
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How things got better
I didn't make a big deal about him using scissors. In fact, for a while I avoided doing any projects where we'd need to cut anything. Instead, I came up with lots of projects where we would focus on the process over the finished product. We went outside and splattered paint on big sheets of poster board. We made collages out of found objects and things we would normally recycle. We spent more time in nature, at the beach, and just playing in the backyard. We played with all of our musical toys, and just made joyful noise with shaker eggs, percussion instruments, and bells.
We also did a lot of wet watercolor paintings. It's a technique that's used in Waldorf schools. It's great for process based art exploration because using wet paper makes it impossible to be precise. Here's how it works:
You will need:
good quality watercolor paper (I like Strathmore)
good quality tube watercolors in red, blue, and yellow (I like Grumbacher)
a watercolor paintbrush (you only need one, but can use more if you'd like)
3 very small cups, or an ice cube tray (I use the tiny drinking glasses from Ikea)
a medium sized cup for clean water
How it works:
First, take a sheet of watercolor paper and get both sides of it soaking wet by running it under the faucet.
Let the excess water grip off.
Put it on the table or an art tray, and smooth it out. It will stick to the flat surface because it's wet.
Set up the paints. A tiny drop of red, blue, and yellow each in their own container.
When the watercolor paint touches the wet paper, it will spread. This is the beauty of wet watercolor painting. You can't make anything look "perfect" because of the nature of the technique. Knowing this, it's best to paint subject matter that will work with the medium. Some of my favorites are underwater scenes, sunsets or cloudy skies, and abstract color studies. The painting above is an exploration of how the primary colors mix to make the secondary colors.
Over time, things have really improved, but issues do resurface from time to time. In my research I learned that first born children are more prone to perfectionist tendencies because as new parents a lot of us treat our first borns in a more detailed and cautious way. It might just be part of who he is, like it's part of who I am to a certain degree. Now that he's older, I try to emphasize the importance of trying again when things don't work out. We also discuss the idea of prioritizing, and deciding which of the things we do we should try to make perfect, and when it's okay to just get a job done pretty well. When we wash the car, for example, we don't get out q-tips and do a great interior detail job or shine the hubcaps. We just get the car as clean as we can while having as much fun as possible doing the job.
Tell me more!
I would love to know if you have tried different things that worked for you, any other books you'd recommend, or projects to try. Leave a comment below, and always feel free to email me any time. I love to hear from you.