Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Budding Perfectionism?

My daughter and I were doing crafts tonight, which is our Tuesday night tradition. After dinner on Tuesdays my husband goes out to play board games with some friends and my daughter and I stay home for some time together. Tonight's activity was paper making, courtesy of the lovely Kiwi Crate (http://www.kiwicrate.com) subscription a family friend started for us, which sends us a monthly box of craft projects with all necessary supplies included. Paper making is surprisingly easy and much less messy than I expected, but we were done after making about three sheets. We set our paper out to dry and moved on to coloring projects.

I realized as we were working at the kitchen table that my daughter has made another one of those startling and sudden developmental shifts. Just month or so ago she was happy to scribble away on paper. She might tell us "this is a whale" or "this is you, mommy!" but there was no effort to represent any form. When coloring in a coloring book she laid down bright swaths of color in haphazard ways, with a fine disregard for the lines of the picture on the page. Now, all of a sudden, she is forming shapes. She is drawing circles for heads and long skinny bodies, and she is asking for help in creating the finer details of facial features. She is attempting to color inside the lines. She is even writing down the occasional letter or number and then proudly announcing "look, I drew an "m" all by myself!"

I'm not quite sure when or how the shift took place, but I have mixed feelings about it. Of course it is fun to see her develop new skills and I enjoy the pride and pleasure she takes in her achievements. It's fascinating to see her represent her world and to get a window on what she is thinking and feeling. However, I notice that this growth seems to be accompanied by some anxiety on her part. She's asking for help more often. She's telling me "I can't do it, you do it, Mommy!" and at times becoming quite distressed when I encourage her to try. I'm spending more time reassuring her that there are "no wrongs in coloring" and reminding her that letters take practice. I draw abstract, loopy doodles that we can work on coloring together, which is a comforting and non-threateningly abstract project I remember being taught by my own mother as a child. Most of the time I can coax her to try it herself, but sometimes she gets really focused on her project looking a certain way. Then I hear "I can't, I can't, I can't" with a note of panic and we have to shift into soothing and calming. I feel bad at those moments, because it feels like my own perfectionism is staring back at me through her eyes.

I hope that I can soften this need to be right for my daughter. I know it is a necessary developmental step to take, to learn to compare your own work or actions with an external standard and to notice when you haven't hit your target. It's a basic neurobiological system that we use throughout our lives for many purposes and the anxiety it evokes is survival based, a leftover from a time in history when being wrong could be fatal. I also know, from experience, that perfectionism is a very harsh master in our own particular period of history. I hope I can teach my daughter, through word and deed, that making mistakes is not just ok but sometimes serendipitous or just plain old fun. Fortunately we have plenty more craft nights in front of us.