My 8-year-old daughter is a fourth-generation perfectionist. In my family, the trait is matrilineal, so I know from firsthand experience that it has a few advantages. My daughter is likely to pay her bills on time and use semicolons correctly. She will not be intimidated by details. She will have a certain baseline competence that will make her life, in some ways, a great deal easier.
She’s also likely to run into the dark side of perfectionism: a recurring fear of failure, an associated aversion to risk, and a stubborn, sometimes poisonous dissatisfaction with oneself. (For better or worse, my perfectionism is very contained—as far as I’m concerned, you’re doing wonderfully and always have been. Only my flaws are deep enough to require correction by perfection, so there.)
One of the unexpectedly rich rewards of motherhood, and of parenting of any kind, is the chance to show your child how to navigate your shared traits. Whether this makes up for bequeathing or teaching the traits in the first place I’m not sure, but it’s redemptive to hand down the survival skills you’ve acquired through experience.
So when I see my daughter agonizing over tiny errors, I’m quick to intervene, reminding her, as my mother reminded me, that mistakes are part of learning.
Recently, when one of her teachers described her with sympathy and affection as a “cerebral little perfectionist,” I thought it was time for a more direct approach.
“Do you know what a perfectionist is?” I asked my daughter one evening. We talked about how wanting to be perfect can sometimes be useful, but often is not — impossible goal and all that.
“It sometimes makes me slow,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
“It’s kind of like I have a guy in my head.”
“A guy in your head who tells you you’re supposed to be perfect? Me too,” I said. “What do you think his name is?”
I wasn’t really expecting an answer, but she had one right away. “Mr. P.,” she said.
We decided that Mr. P. was sometimes really helpful, but tended to turn mean when you needed him most. Cheerful Mr. P. was great; grumpy Mr. P., look out. Maybe the trick was to get to know Mr. P. a little better.
Since then, the two of us have been comparing notes on our Misters P. My daughter’s is turning out to be a pretty interesting fellow, while mine is mellowing with age. He still yells at me about his unfulfilled expectations, but at long last he’s starting to understand that imperfection is inevitable. Sometimes, he’ll even laugh with me about one of my all-too-human pratfalls.
I don’t know if the two Mr. Ps will ever meet in person, but I’m sure both of them are happier for having learned about one another. Because there’s nothing quite like being entirely understood.
Michelle Nijhuis (@nijhuism) lives in rural Washington state, where she writes about science, the environment, and occasionally, parenting. This essay first appeared in The Last Word On Nothing, a blog on science, art and ephemera.