Learning to Make Mistakes

Some of our kids turn into perfectionists during grade school. Is there a link to adoption?

Perfectionist children may become overly stressed about tests at school

Dakota, age eight, receives a homework packet every Monday. By Tuesday morning, he has it completed—even though its not due until Friday. The teacher wants you to do one page a day, his mother explains. But Dakota won’t listen. Each Friday, Jessie, a third grader, has a spelling test. But if she hasn’t mastered every word to her satisfaction, she refuses to attend school that day. “She’s a perfectionist with high standards,” says her dad.

Mistakes Are OK

As children enter the grade-school years, they become focused on mastering the world around them—as a way to learn about themselves and grow. Since academics are a big, new part of a six- to eight-year-old’s life, the drive for mastery often centers on schoolwork.

But during this time, some adopted kids develop a drive for perfection and a fear of making mistakes. These children may fear—consciously or subconsciously—that their lack of perfection caused their birth parents to relinquish them. They may even believe they’ll be sent back if they’re not perfect. Some children feel that their birth parents made mistakes in their lives that resulted in their adoption, so they conclude that mistakes are things to be avoided at all costs.

If your child insists on perfection, honesty and humor can defuse the situation. It helps to address this tendency at an early age, before perfectionism becomes deeply etched into a child’s behavior. Here’s how to begin.

Ask what if. This can give your child a reality check on the real consequences of less-than-perfect work. Say, for example, “What’s the worst thing that will happen if you get a B instead of straight As?”

Admit your own imperfections. Point out ways that you, as a parent, aren’t perfect, while still being good enough. If you burn dinner one night or spill your coffee, note that you made a mistake. Laugh or dramatically overreact, and let your child laugh along with you.

Invoke statutes of limitations. Ask your child if he’s ever seen adults walking around with signs that reveal their second-grade spelling test scores.

Play the mistake game, in which you and your child purposely make silly mistakes, to see how it feels. For example, turn left, instead of right, on the way home from the store one day, and see what happens. You might discover an interesting sight that you would have missed had you gone the right way.

Acknowledge your child’s feelings. One night, Dakota tore up his homework because he thought it was messy. “I’m stupid and dumb, just like this paper,” he said. “Sometimes kids who are adopted feel that way,” his mom replied gently. “They think they’re stupid, because, if they were really smart, they wouldn’t have been placed for adoption.” This explanation helped Dakota make a connection between being adopted and needing to be perfect. It also let him see that he’s not the only kid who feels that way.

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