School, slacking and perfectionism…

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?

Painting, Art, Daughter, Copenhagen, Silent Sunday, My Sunday Photo, School slacking and perfectionism, Perfectionist

Author: Sarah Mummy

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  1. Sarah,

    You could say that a lot of teenage boys were slackers. Or you could say they were masters of doing just enough.
    MSM and social media bombard us with illusions of perfection. This isn’t helpful for people who already have a tendency toward perfectionism.

    Two things I’ve heard:

    “It was a privilege to work with [star performer], but it wasn’t a pleasure, because he was a perfectionist.”

    “How do you manage always to be so calm?”
    “I just let things slide.”

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    • I certainly got the impression when they were talking about perfectionists and slackers that the perfectionists tended to be girls and the slackers tended to be boys, although of course they wouldn’t actually say that! There is definitely something to be said for being calm and doing just enough.

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  2. It is a beautiful painting but I can totally understand why you’re concerned. I do think that your awareness of the fact it could be problematic will be helpful though. I also feel that there is something to be said for the fact she has suffered disappointment as a child. I know it was horrendous for you all what happened with the panto this year but children who never fail at anything or are never disappointed are supposed to be less equipped to deal with things in later life when they inevitably start to face disappointment.

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    • Thanks very much. I have been talking to her a bit about the amount of time she’s spending on revising for French tests etc to try to encourage her to do a bit less. The extra time she’s putting in probably only accounts for getting an extra question right, which isn’t really worth the stress.
      That is a good point about the disappointment. Life can actually be difficult for kids who have always succeeded at everything. I dread the day she doesn’t get a distinction in a dance exam! Luckily she seems to be coping well with doing her amateur panto rather than the ‘real’ one. x

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  3. Your description of your son could be my son too! He does just enough to get good grades at school but doesn’t like to put in more effort than is necessary. He too does art GCSE and for the last few days I’ve been telling him to do some homework that was due in on Monday. I think he ended up spending 2 hours on Sunday finishing it because he had ignored it for a week. He too has a tendency to prefer maths but he does have a creative side. He’d much rather be spending his time playing Fortnite than be doing his homework!

    It’s interesting to learn about the perfectionism though, my boys are certainly not that, but it’s good to be aware – just in case.

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    • Your son does sound a lot like my son! I think from talking to friends that there are a lot of boys like this. My son actually tries quite hard with his art and doesn’t actually leave it until the last minute, but most of his homework is done the day before it is due in!

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  4. My eldest is a classic perfectionist and this is at the root of her mental health problems. It was spotted a good few years ago now but unfortunately she was too low for any therapist to be able to help her with it. She really does need some help to unravel those tendencies. We were told to allow her to fail sometimes, so that she can see that she can pick herself back up and carry on. Her default mechanism is to do what your daughter said – screw it all up and never do it again. I think that’s where her ‘all or nothing’ tendencies come from – unless she’s excellent at something, she cannot bring herself to do it at all. It’s a tough one that’s for sure but at least you can see it. As you say, keep an eye on it. xx

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    • Thanks very much! I must say I did think of your daughter when I was listening to the talk. My daughter does put an awful lot of time into her homework, but the one advantage she’s got is that she will try (and keep trying) with things she’s not brilliant at. So she’s not on the school netball team, but she still goes to netball practice and works hard at it, with the aim of making the team at some point in the future. X

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  5. You make such a valid point about the mental health issues caused by perfectionists. It is true that if they worry less about the work, it probably is a good thing. But it can be tricky to find that balance. I have one that is so much of a slacker that he barely gets by and one that works hard but I don’t think he is a perfectionist. I guess as a parent, you just have to keep a close eye on them and make sure that you intervene either way if you are worried. Great post and definitely food for thought

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    • Thanks very much! I would certainly like my eldest to work a bit harder, he is like your son that barely gets by and I think he may end up disappointed by his A Level results. But I was very pleased with the way he took his GCSEs in his stride. I would definitely prefer a child who gets grades slightly lower, but they’re happy and healthy.

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