Seven-year-old Serena's mother describes her daughter's first piano practice of every week. "We always have tears! If she makes even one mistake, she is ready to give up. She expects herself to be able to the play the piece perfectly the first time. No matter what I say, she gets upset. Eventually, she turns her frustration on me, which means she ends up in her room for a time out. I am patient for just so long, and then I begin to lose it, too! The only thing I can think to do is to give her a nickel for every time she makes a mistake without freaking out."
Sound familiar? Most students tolerate the messiness associated with learning a new concept or piece. In fact, some tolerate it too well! They aren't bothered by mistakes. Then there are the perfectionists. Often they are gifted children who rarely encounter difficulty in learning something new and are shocked when they can't master a task immediately.
Certainly our current society, which values test scores more than the qualities of curiosity and awareness, is partly to blame. Yet some children are simply born perfectionists! When my daughter was three, she came to me in tears. "I don't know how to tell time! I cannot get it!" (This happened in the pre-digital world!). Neither my husband nor I thought she should master this skill at such a young age. Neither of us had tried to teach it to her. My daughter simply decided that she needed to know—and now!
We sat with her and tried to guide her learning, but she was locked in self-recrimination. "I will never learn how to tell time. My children will think I am stupid!" We held our heads in our hands; now she was worried about a future far away. We tried everything. Reassurance: "Honey, most children don't learn how to tell time until they are older." Sternness: "Take a deep breath, stop crying and listen. We know how to teach you what you want to know." Humor: "Here, let's try to teach Elmo how to tell time." Nothing worked. Eventually, I simply held her until she cried herself to sleep.
Yes, my daughter grew up to be an honor student. My friends used to wonder why I worried that she got all As, but I did. I wanted her to enjoy her learning and to have the confidence to try new things, and both would require her to be comfortable making mistakes. She did learn to do this, but it took time and patience, both hers and ours.
When we encounter students who are perfectionists, how do we help them? How do we convince them that it's normal to make mistakes when learning something new?
First we need to examine our own beliefs. One day I heard myself describing my daughter as a perfectionist with an unmistakable note of pride in my voice. I had to admit that I did like seeing her name on the honor roll. I was myself a product of our achievement-obsessed culture. That double message to my daughter must have seeped through.
Yet most of my daughter's drive came from within. For her January 29, 2015, New York Times article, "Helping a Perfectionist Child Worry Less and Do More," author Jessica Lahey interviewed Martin Anthony, Professor of Psychology at Ryerson University and one author of When Perfect Isn't Good Enough. Ryerson describes two types of perfectionism. The first type pays attention to details, lists, order, and arbitrary rules in a show of obsessive-compulsive behavior. The second type sets unreasonably high standards and then judges his or her self-worth based on whether or not they meet those standards. This behavior is more often linked to anxiety and
Ask children what worries they have about making mistakes. Then listen without trying to talk them out of their fears. Helping a child develop the vocabulary to state their concerns can make them less anxious.
Help children realize that the dire consequences they envision are only one possible outcome of many. "I know you are afraid your teacher is going to yell at you when you make a mistake, but what are some of the other ways he might react?"
Renaming "mistakes" as "misinformation," can relieve the child's self-reproach and awaken their curiosity. "Oh, I thought the note was a G# and that's what I played. I see now that it's G natural. Playing the G# wasn't a mistake, because that's what I thought it was! Now I see that I just need to look more carefully."
Ask questions that help them see the situation through other people's eyes: "What did Grandma do when she couldn't figure out how to play that video game you showed her?" Or "What did your friend Amy do when she spilled water on the painting she was making?"
Examine the evidence
The next time the child makes a mistake, ask her to examine what really happened in the past when she made an error. "When you forgot to answer one of the questions on your math homework, what did your teacher do?" During piano practice or at the lesson, it might also help to encourage the child to play the mistake and to play it loudly for all to hear! Then you can ask, "Did the practice police show up and arrest you?" This often brings laughter rather than tears.
View failure more broadly
Angela Duckworth, a MacArthur Fellow, writes, "Failure strengthens grit like no other factor," and it is a person's grit that determines his or her ability to succeed. The perfectionist child sometimes responds to reading about the lives of successful people, most of whom were completely comfortable with mistakes. When Thomas Edison failed over and over again to bring the lightbulb into existence, he said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
Let young musicians know that the only mistake they can make is to stop. "Play something. Play anything, but don't stop!" They can then return to the piece, examine the "misinformation" and figure out a way to change it on the next try. When students are preparing for a recital, we play a game. They begin their piece. At some point I interrupt and say, "Improvise!" The student shifts to his own ideas, making them as stylistically close to the original music as possible. After a few measures, I say, "Resume!" and they return to the original notes.
To return to Serena, what about the practice of giving her a nickel for every time she makes a mistake without freaking out? In her book The Gift of Failure, Jessica Lahey points out that "Rewards don't work, because humans perceive them as attempts to control behavior, which undermines intrinsic motivation." A perfectionist child may shift his or her goal to perfectly managing her behavior rather than the notes. While the tears may subside, the anxiety remains.
Above all, as parents and teachers, we need to stay patient with ourselves. Perfectionist children can be difficult to convince. A change in their attitude happens little by little. In addition, we have to allow for our own mistakes. Remember, we cannot always be perfect parents and teachers, ones with the perfect answer every time. It might be a good idea occasionally to abandon the piano practice or lesson for a walk together, an activity that has no expectations. My daughter has a term for it: a reset!