Ho, boy, perfectionism. THAT miserable disease. Too often the term’s bandied around like it belongs to high achievers: Strive for perfection, get straight As! Sure, sometimes they can be a little driven, but hey, on the whole, it’s a good thing, right? That tendency will get them far in life.
Perfectionism in our house bolted the door and hamstrung the horse before it ever left the stall. Perfectionism is a caltrops, a shackle, a monstrous barrier to progress. Perfectionism is a severe learning difficulty.
Lemme tell you a story.
One day somewhere in his third year, Mr Pixel wrote me a note. I couldn’t read it, of course, because it was unformed pre-school scribbles, but I made valiant efforts to guess at the content.
He wasn’t fooled. He wanted me to READ it. When he realised I couldn’t, a look of pure disgust settled on his face, and that was it. He was done with writing. DONE.
Just how done, I had no idea.
You see, Mr Pixel had decided that since he couldn’t, instantly, write intelligibly, then by god he wouldn’t write at all.
I didn’t know that, of course.
How could I?
He wasn’t even three, for goodness sake; I just figured, it would come.
So we gave him plenty of opportunities. Besides free painting and drawing, there was colouring-in, dot-to-dots, white-boards, and mazes – ways to practice writing-like movements more forgiving than forming letters. Mr Pixel wasn’t interested. (In retrospect, I should have twigged when he’d use his finger to trace a maze, but nothing that left a mark.*) We had fat crayons, markers, pencil grips. He ignored everything.
Perhaps he had fine- or maybe gross motor issues? We swam, we had Lego, play-dough, squeeze-balls, kinetic sand – anything to strengthen his muscles.
We tried an occupational therapist. Lovely young woman, sporty, full of giggles. Mr Pixel adored her – though not enough to do what she asked. “It’s my pencil and my hand, I’ll hold it how I want,” he said, barely five years old. (SAF. It’s frickin’ real.) $900 later we quit flogging that horse, because having refused to play any of the OT’s
homework games with me, Mr Pixel had eventually quit engaging with her at all. He’d worked out what was really going on, and he wasn’t having a bar of it.
School didn’t push. They recognised that kids mature at different paces and were confident that he’d write when he was ready.
Which may well be shortly after hell freezes over. Five years later I’m pretty sure you could fit every mark he ever made at school onto one sheet of A4 with a nice wide margin for framing.
Yes, I know. Dysgraphia. But how can you tell? It’s a completely self-reinforcing cycle. Is he refusing to try because it’s difficult, or is it difficult because he refuses to try, or both? How do you help someone who has simply decided they Won’t? Hint: treating it as if it’s dysgraphia – offering to scribe, for instance, typing, or voice-to-text software – doesn’t work. All you get are dirty looks and a zipped lip.
Text-to-voice, on the other hand, worked brilliantly for about a fortnight, during which Mr Pixel typed reams of swear-words into my phone for my car to say while I was driving.** (Cheers, inventors of Bluetooth, bet you didn’t foresee that.) Then the novelty wore off and we were back to No Writing.
Not writing has one major benefit, you see. Most schoolwork requires writing, so a kid who won’t write has pretty effectively shielded themselves from ever have to risk being wrong, or making a mistake that others might see. This principle works right across the board: If there’s any chance an activity won’t be instantly mastered – which is pretty much everything – it’s off the agenda.
THAT is perfectionism, people.
It kills me and it breaks my heart.
I have no answers. It goes without saying that anything Mr Pixel does want to try is greenlit. As parents we talk frequently about our learning efforts in his hearing, emphasising the frequency and usefulness of mistakes. He watches educational videos and we talk ideas. And we keep providing opportunities, not just for writing but other, low-risk, open-ended activities like paint-pours or making fimo beads – our homeschool group is perfect for this, god bless those people.
Minecraft and Lego have both been great for trying and failing, without losing face. He’ll type texts for me if I’m driving and when his server crashed, he asked for help composing support messages to the host.
And after years of that, we are finally starting to see writing, in the sanctuary of our homeschool group, with a teacher who absolutely gets Mr Pixel (and a class full of others like him). With their encouragement – and their very broken-down, structured lessons – he’s begun producing stories and paragraphs that don’t just say ‘poo poo poo poo’. (Even that was only a one-off.) He’s getting there, having a go, learning what success feels like and more importantly, that mistakes are survivable. Which after all, is really the only way to break perfectionism’s paralysing grip.
* = I figured it out when CraftyFish – who owns many untouched workbooks, including The Gifted Kids’ Workbook, Create This Book, and The Big Life Journal – explained that she won’t write in them for fear of “ruining them”. At least she Wrecked This Journal; Mr Pixel wouldn’t even do that.
** = Yes, I let him, because HE WAS MAKING WORDS. Plus, the pair of them giggling their heads off was such a nice change from the screaming.