I always say that my younger son is a perfectionist with his art homework. He has good ideas and always thinks they won’t take long, but we’ve seen it all before. We know that even the simplest ideas will take him hours. And he always makes things even more complicated for himself by mounting everything on an extra piece of card, which has been very carefully measured and cut. His brain is more geared to maths and physics than to art and he uses a ruler far more than is normal in art. He definitely needs to let the ruler go a bit and speed up or he will have no time to spend on the rest of his GCSEs.
When it comes to the rest of his GCSEs, he does what he needs to do. He’s a very bright boy and things come very easily to him, so he actually doesn’t need to put that much time in. I would occasionally like to see him make more effort though. He’s not as bad as his brother, who has spent almost his entire school career doing far less than normal, but my son is in danger of becoming a bit of a slacker.
But do you know what the good thing about slackers is? They are far less susceptible to mental health problems brought on by the pressures of school and exams. My eldest sailed through his GCSEs completely unscathed and came out with results which were good enough to get him into his new 6th form.
The other day, I went to a talk at my younger son’s school, which touched on perfectionism and how potentially damaging it can be for kids. Perfectionists set themselves exceptionally high and often unrealistic standards. They are highly critical of themselves and others. They spend too much time on homework and get very upset if they fail to reach a standard – so they may cry at 95%, while another child is very happy at 75%. They get extremely anxious about exams and small tests and may suffer headaches, stomach aches, loss of sleep and tearfulness.
The teacher gave the example of a child being told to spend half an hour revising some Spanish verbs for a small test for homework, but then spending four hours. If a child is doing that, parents need to encourage them to gradually change their behaviour because it won’t help them do any better in a test, but it may affect their mental health.
I’m pleased to say that, with the exception of the art homework with a ruler, my son is most definitely not a perfectionist.
But the talk still rang alarm bells with me.
Because I have one child who definitely is a perfectionist.
Over half term, my daughter spent hours and hours working on a beautiful painting of Copenhagen. I was so proud of her for the effort she put in and for how good it looked at the end. But it wasn’t even homework. It was for a ‘house art’ competition. She didn’t need to do it, yet she spent all that time on it. On the one hand, it’s really good that she found something to fill her time, that she enjoyed doing it and that she created something beautiful. On the other hand, she could probably have come up with a different idea and created something equally beautiful in a fraction of the time.
Because she did start to get upset with it. It was taking too long and it was tiring her out. I did suggest to her maybe trimming the paper so that she literally had less space to work on, saving her time, but she wouldn’t do it. There were tears because we said she needed to paint the windows, but she was afraid that by painting the windows she would ‘ruin’ the whole thing. Suddenly she decided it was crap and she hated it. This is classic perfectionist behaviour and something we will need to keep a close eye on in the coming years.
Oh, and she spent three or four hours revising some French verbs for a small test.
Do you have children who are perfectionists or slackers or somewhere in between?