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PHP Parenting Perfectionists

Parenting

Perfectionists

Encouraging Healthy Risk-Taking for Risk Evaders

By Dr. Hope E. Wilson & Dr. Jill L. Adelson

13 • Parenting for High Potential


Jana received a flier for an art program for children

in the community. Excitedly, she showed her gifted

elementary-aged daughter, Calla, the paper, and

waited expectantly for shouts of excitement about the

opportunity. Instead, she was met with a shrug of the

shoulders and an indifferent look. Calla told her that

art was not her “thing” and that she did not want to

go to art camp. Perplexed, Jana stared at her child,

not understanding why she wasn’t interested.

Now, if this was the first camp that Calla had

rejected for the summer, Jana might have just

dismissed this as a lack of interest in art. However,

Calla had systematically rejected soccer camp,

theater camp, softball camp, music camp, and dance

classes. It was beginning to look like she would be

spending all day, every day, of the summer at home

in her room.

Parents of gifted children like Calla are often

baffled by their children’s dismissal of many extracurricular

opportunities. It is hard to understand

why children with such talent and potential would

not be excited about joining and participating in a

variety of activities that would showcase their skills.

Parents often come to us asking about their child’s

reluctance and wondering how they can encourage

their child to develop his or her talent when their

child avoids taking risks.

In actuality, risk avoidance is characteristic

of perfectionistic behaviors. We often call these

children “Risk Evaders” (Adelson, 2007; Adelson

& Wilson, 2009). Risk Evaders tend to avoid trying

new things or participating in competitions or

even activities in which they believe they may not

perform perfectly. By avoiding these activities, Risk

Evaders often miss out on excellent opportunities

for further development of talent, self-esteem, and

confidence in their abilities. As parents, the underlying

motivation for avoiding these activities and

how to help your child extend his or her participation

is difficult to understand.

Perfectionistic Behaviors

Rather than classify children as perfectionists,

we prefer to discuss behaviors that tend to relate to

perfectionistic tendencies. Thus, we can focus on

changing behaviors, rather than labeling children,

which can have negative consequences. Perfectionistic

behaviors are associated with a focus on achieving

high goals. These behaviors may be negative (i.e.,

unhealthy) or positive (i.e., healthy). As parents and

caregivers for gifted children, our goal is to help children

move from using perfectionism in an unhealthy

way to exhibiting healthy behaviors that continue to

address their need to achieve high goals.

Healthy perfectionism leads children to strive

for excellence, set high (yet manageable) goals, and

pursue their areas of talent. Unhealthy perfection-

Parenting Perfectionists PHP

ism, on the other hand, prevents children from managing

their time effectively, immobilizes them from pursing

areas of talent, or otherwise interferes with their happiness

or well-being. Table 1 illustrates some of the differences

between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism.

Table 1

Healthy and Unhealthy Perfectionistic Behaviors

Healthy Perfectionistic Behaviors

Sets high, realistic goals

Enjoys challenges

Has confidence in abilities

Accepts defeats

Learns from mistakes

Exercises good time management skills

Unhealthy Perfectionistic Behaviors

Unrealistically expects perfection

Avoids challenges

Lacks confidence and self-esteem

Is a poor loser

Is devastated by mistakes

Lacks time-management skills

When children begin to exhibit behaviors that illustrate

unhealthy perfectionism, parents, teachers, and

caregivers must work together to help them develop

healthier habits. Healthy perfectionism can allow gifted

and talented children to have highly successful and

enriching lives.

Risk Evaders

As noted above, Risk Evaders are children who

exhibit unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors that tend to

prevent them from participating in activities that have

the possibility for failure, such as Calla who refused to

attend art camp. Other Risk Evaders may not audition for

school plays, try out for sports teams, or join in extracurricular

activities. Competition is particularly an issue for

these children, as they fear revealing imperfections. These

behaviors may also manifest themselves in academic

settings as students who “forget” to complete assignments

or seldom volunteer answers in class discussions. Table 2

outlines some characteristics of Risk Evaders.

Table 2

Characteristics of Risk Evaders

Avoid challenges

Miss school assignments

Lack of participation in school activities

and competitive situations

Hide perceived imperfections

Focus on outcomes

Narrow focus of interests

September 2010 • 14


development into well-rounded citizens. These behaviors

may even carry over to children avoiding activities

such as a family game that a sibling is better at, or that

the child does not think he or she is likely, or even

guaranteed, to win.

Through their reluctance to participate in a variety

of activities, children miss out on opportunities to

develop skills and interests in a variety of areas. This

diversity of activities helps to develop well-roundedness.

By trying many new things, children can discover new

interests and learn how to cope with mistakes and imperfections.

They can learn how to enjoy participation

without the pressure of a perfect or faultless performance.

A talented pianist may enjoy playing soccer,

even if she isn’t the star player. A gifted writer may

enjoy time spent participating in a community theater

production. The key is being willing to try a variety of

activities and risk not being the best but instead focusing

on the joy of the activity itself.

Competition and Risk-Taking

One way to encourage participation and joy of the

discipline is to find activities that avoid competition

between participants. For Risk Evaders who are reluctant

to engage in situations in which they may not be

as good as other children, cooperative or noncompetitive

situations may be more successful starting points.

A child may be more willing to create art as part of an

afterschool enrichment class than for a national art

competition. Similarly, many community and recreation

centers offer art, dance, gymnastics, or swimming classes

for children who are more focused on exposure to a new

Parenting name of Perfectionists column or articlePHP PHP

area and enjoyment than serious competition. These are

excellent ways for children to try out new areas of interest

without pressure for outstanding performance.

That being said, as a child begins to develop elite

or advanced talent in a specific area, higher levels of

competition may be necessary to fully develop his or her

talent. Auditions or portfolios may be required to attend

top schools or gain access to elite trainers or programs.

Children who shy away from these experiences may miss

out on opportunities to develop their talent. To develop

elite status, children may need to engage in competitive

activities. Competition will also allow children to hone

their own skills in response to others’ advanced abilities

and will allow them to receive feedback on where they

are in developing and exhibiting their skills. Parents

can help their children in these instances by focusing

on enjoyment of the activity and striving to outperform

their personal performances rather than other children’s

performances. For example, the goal should be to score

more goals than the last game, rather than beat the opposing

team.

Developing Healthy Risk-Taking

The goal of parents of Risk Evaders is to help children

move from unhealthy perfectionism to healthy

risk-taking. To encourage children to begin taking risks

in activities in which they may fail, make a mistake, or

their faults may be shown, parents are often in need of

advice. Children who are reluctant to participate in activities

due to unhealthy perfectionism need a supportive

and safe environment, concrete and specific praise,

and low-risk starting points.

September 2010 • 16


Table 3

PHP Parenting Perfectionists

Types of Praise

Empty Praise

“You are a good dancer.”

“You are so smart.”

“Great job.”

“You beat the Cardinals.”

“You are so creative.”

Safe Environments

Parents can create safe and supportive environments

within their families to encourage healthy risk-taking.

By acknowledging your own mistakes, you can work

to create a place in which honesty, rather than perfection,

is valued. Recently, one of the authors forgot a

deadline at work. As she relayed the story at the dinner

table, her family was able to see not only that she made

a mistake but also how she coped with it by discussing

the issue with her boss. This opened up to a further

discussion over dessert about how she was frustrated

with herself for the mistake but how she could overcome

and continue and that it would not prevent her from

volunteering for other projects in the future. Her family

talked and shared about how they all felt when they are

disappointed in themselves and how they coped. Communication

is the key to creating a safe environment for

children within a family.

Concrete and Specific Praise

Another way to build a safe and secure environment

and raise a child’s confidence level is to provide concrete

and specific praise. Empty praise or continual praise that

is not linked to specific actions does little to help a child

develop a sense of accomplishment or pride in his or her

abilities. It is possible to provide your child unconditional

and continual love and support, while communicating

praise at specific actions. When parents consistently find

concrete actions and accomplishments to encourage in

their children, the children learn to find joy in their successes,

as well. For example, “I am so proud of how hard

you worked on that pirouette” is more meaningful to a

child than, “You are such a good dancer.” See Table 3 for

more examples of specific praise.

3 • 17 ParentingParenting for High for Potential High Potential

Concrete Praise

“I love how hard you worked on

getting that pirouette right.”

“You learned so much this week

about your history project.”

“Excellent job scoring that goal

during the game today! I can tell you

practiced so hard.”

“You made more baskets than you

did last week.”

“I love your idea for the art project—

it is so unique. You have great ideas.”

These types of praise help children appreciate their

individual successes and will help to fortify their selfconcepts

to withstand disappointments that come from

occasional failures.

Low-Risk Starting Points

For children who are extreme Risk Evaders, it can

be a struggle to entice participation in any new activity.

Thus, parents may need to start on small scales and

build on successes. A child who enjoys pick-up games of

ball in the neighborhood may be encouraged to join the

community t-ball league. A children’s church choir may

be less intimidating for a shy, but talented, singer than

a large school choir. Organizations such as Girl Scouts,

Boy Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, and 4H also

provide opportunities for children to try a variety of

activities in a noncompetitive environment. As children

grow in skills and confidence, they can extend their

activities to include more competitive environments.

Suggestions for Parents

Although these guidelines provide a general sense of

direction, many parents wish for specific ideas for their

Risk Evaders. These suggestions are meant to be activities

that you could start as family traditions on a regular

basis, or even as one-time experiences, tomorrow.

Family Adventure Night

One simple way to encourage healthy risk-taking is to

institute “Family Adventure Night.” Family Adventure

Night is a chance for families to cooperate and try new

activities that are outside of their comfort zone. By modeling

healthy risk-taking, parents show children that having

fun is more important than avoiding mistakes. These

adventure nights provide a place to develop a safe and

secure environment for imperfections and also provide

low-risk starting points for risk-taking. Family Adventure

Nights might be athletic activities, such as miniature golf,

bowling, or roller skating. They could also be impromptu

activities at home, such as charades, karaoke, or learning

a new dance. With slightly more preparation, families

could work together on a new recipe, craft, or household

project. The idea is to pick an activity that no one has

a particular talent for but that everyone would consider

enjoyable. This provides an opportunity to laugh at your

own mistakes and enjoy participation rather than perfection

or high performance. These activities also provide

an opportunity for parents to be an example, sharing with

their children any uneasiness about trying something new,

excitement over improvements (rather than winning),

and mistakes made.

Family Game Nights

Lots of family resources recommend family game

nights to build community and facilitate communica-


tion. For Risk Evaders, family game nights have the

additional benefit of providing opportunities to develop

skills related to coping with competition and overcoming

the fear of losing. Friendly competition on a board

game can be a learning opportunity for children when

parents purposefully guide discussion toward the way

to cope with mistakes and talking through their own

mistakes in the game. In addition, emphasis should be

placed on effort, skills, and fun rather than the ultimate

winner or loser of the game. Games such as Cranium

provide opportunities to try skills in a variety of areas

(such as drawing, solving word puzzles, trivia, music,

and acting). Other games develop unique skills such as

visual acuity (e.g., Pictureka), spelling and vocabulary

(e.g., Bananagrams), logic (e.g., Set), flexibility (e.g.,

Twister), or general silliness (e.g., Mad Gab). The key

is to find games that the whole family will enjoy playing

together, and parents can model appropriate responses

to competitive outcomes.

Story Sharing

Story sharing is seeking out and identifying stories

that illustrate healthy risk-taking and sharing them with

your children. Library books, television shows, movies,

and biographies can provide ample examples for

discussion. Even audition shows for reality television

can be used to discuss the bravery of contestants with an

aspiring performer. Biographies of eminent personalities

often show examples of times in which it was necessary

to risk failure to pursue dreams. Posing questions during

the story can enhance the discussion and guide children

to develop an understanding for themselves. For

example, asking the child what might have happened if

Louis Pasteur had thrown away his “contaminated” agar

plates rather than noticing the antibacterial properties

of penicillin. In another situation, a child could

consider how Helen Keller must have felt the first time

she stepped onto stage to give a speech during her long

career as a public speaker, knowing the obstacles that

she would have to overcome.

Parenting Perfectionists PHP

Homework

This article, so far, has focused on extracurricular

activities and talents, but what about Risk Evaders and

academic pursuits? Risk Evaders may avoid completing

or attempting school assignments when they feel that

they may not be able to do them perfectly. Rather than

risk exposing their faults, the child may choose to “lose”

assignments or “forget” to do them entirely. This often

comes to a boiling point for families during homework

time. To prevent confusion, parents can work to maintain

clear lines of communication with the teacher. By

working as a team, teachers and parents facilitate student

success. Parent-teacher communications should be

ongoing. Sometimes, children will display perfectionistic

tendencies in one setting and not the other, so teachers

and parents may not both realize that the child is

exhibiting unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors. Whether

the behaviors occur in one or both places, teachers and

parents working together is the key. Parents concerned

with the effects of risk-avoidance on homework and

academic performance should schedule a meeting with

the teacher. Ask the teacher about daily and weekly

homework expectations and consider having your child

use a planner to record assignments and for parents and

teachers to communicate with one another.

Because Risk Evaders are often focused on the outcome

and whether they will be perfect, parents need to

help them learn to appreciate the process and how they

grow and improve during the process. This is particularly

important when children are working on projects or

studying for tests that cover an extended time in history.

Rather than wait for the teacher to evaluate and grade

the project or test, talk with your child about what she

or he did well and what he or she will do differently next

time. Also take the time to celebrate the completion of

the project rather than waiting and celebrating a grade.

When helping a Risk Evader move from avoiding

assignments to doing them, you may notice that he

or she wants reassurance with each step (or problem)


PHP Parenting Perfectionists

Parents of Risk Evaders can

work to create a safe and secure

environment and provide

specific praise and low-risk

starting points for activities.

that it was done perfectly. Avoid checking the entire

assignment and talk with your child about the purpose

of homework. Emphasize the importance of practice and

of growing rather than on being perfect each time. Once

the homework is returned, talk about whether the child

has mastered the concept or needs more practice. Keep

in mind that mastery is not the same as 100% correct.

Final Thoughts

One of the most frustrating situations is to parent a

child who exhibits unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors.

This article has detailed the specific characteristics of

unhealthy and healthy perfectionism, specifically as they

relate to Risk Evaders. Parents of Risk Evaders can work

to create a safe and secure environment and provide

specific praise and low-risk starting points for activities.

Specifically, they can begin family traditions such as

Family Adventure Night, game nights, or sharing stories.

Homework can be an especially frustrating time for

unhealthy perfectionists, but parents can help children

by encouraging time management skills, maintaining

clear communication with teachers, and celebrating and

acknowledging the process rather than the outcome.

Although Jana’s daughter was not interested in the

art classes, eventually a solution was reached. After some

advice, Jana decided to discuss the summer activities

with Calla. She was, indeed, afraid of not being as good

as the other children in the classes. After reassurance and

talking through some scenarios, Calla carefully looked

through the summer guide for the local recreation center.

She was excited to learn they offered chess classes, and

Calla enthusiastically joined the class, even though she

(nor either of her parents) had ever played the game!

19 • Parenting for High Potential

Resources

Community Organizations

Girl Scouts of the USA

http://www.girlscouts.org

Boy Scouts of America

http://www.scouting.org

Boys & Girls Clubs

of America

http://www.bgca.org

YMCA

http://www.ymca.net

4-H

http://4-h.org

Articles

Adderholdt-Elliott, M. (1989). Perfectionism and underachievement.

Gifted Child Today, 12(1), 19–21.

Adelson, J. L. (2007). A “perfect” case study: Perfectionism

in academically talented fourth graders. Gifted

Child Today, 30(4), 14–20.

Books

Adelson, J. L., & Wilson, H. E. (2009). Letting go of

perfect: Overcoming perfectionism in kids. Waco, TX:

Prufrock Press.

Greenspon, T. S. (2007). What do when good enough isn’t

good enough. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Authors’ Note:

Hope E. Wilson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of

elementary education at Stephen F. Austin State University

in Nacogdoches, TX. She earned her doctorate in

educational psychology with an emphasis in gifted education

from the University of Connecticut. Prior to her

career in academia, Hope was an elementary art teacher

in Texas. She, along with her coauthor, wrote Letting Go

of Perfect: Overcoming Perfectionism in Kids, a practical

guide for parents and teachers to help children overcome

unhealthy perfectionism.

Jill L. Adelson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the

University of Louisville. Dr. Adelson’s experiences with

gifted children include teaching fourth grade self-contained

gifted and talented classes and working in classes

as a professional development staff member for Project

M 3 : Mentoring Mathematical Minds. She provides professional

development for educators across the country

and presents at local, state, national, and international

conferences, including NAGC and the World Council

for Gifted and Talented Children. She and Hope E.

Wilson coauthored Letting Go of Perfect: Overcoming

Perfectionism in Kids (2009).

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