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					    PHP           Parenting Perfectionists

Encouraging Healthy Risk-Taking for Risk Evaders
By Dr. Hope E. Wilson & Dr. Jill L. Adelson

    13   •   Parenting for High Potential
                                                                                                  Parenting Perfectionists           PHP

    Jana received a flier for an art program for children      ism, on the other hand, prevents children from manag-
in the community. Excitedly, she showed her gifted             ing their time effectively, immobilizes them from pursing
elementary-aged daughter, Calla, the paper, and                areas of talent, or otherwise interferes with their happi-
waited expectantly for shouts of excitement about the          ness or well-being. Table 1 illustrates some of the differ-
opportunity. Instead, she was met with a shrug of the          ences between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism.
shoulders and an indifferent look. Calla told her that
                                                            Table 1
art was not her “thing” and that she did not want to
go to art camp. Perplexed, Jana stared at her child,        Healthy and Unhealthy Perfectionistic Behaviors
not understanding why she wasn’t interested.
    Now, if this was the first camp that Calla had           Healthy Perfectionistic Behaviors               Unhealthy Perfectionistic Behaviors
rejected for the summer, Jana might have just
dismissed this as a lack of interest in art. However,        Sets high, realistic goals                      Unrealistically expects perfection
Calla had systematically rejected soccer camp,
                                                             Enjoys challenges                               Avoids challenges
theater camp, softball camp, music camp, and dance
classes. It was beginning to look like she would be          Has confidence in abilities                     Lacks confidence and self-esteem
spending all day, every day, of the summer at home
in her room.                                                 Accepts defeats                                 Is a poor loser
    Parents of gifted children like Calla are often
                                                             Learns from mistakes                            Is devastated by mistakes
baffled by their children’s dismissal of many extra-
curricular opportunities. It is hard to understand           Exercises good time management skills           Lacks time-management skills
why children with such talent and potential would
not be excited about joining and participating in a                When children begin to exhibit behaviors that il-
variety of activities that would showcase their skills.        lustrate unhealthy perfectionism, parents, teachers, and
Parents often come to us asking about their child’s            caregivers must work together to help them develop
reluctance and wondering how they can encourage                healthier habits. Healthy perfectionism can allow gifted
their child to develop his or her talent when their            and talented children to have highly successful and
child avoids taking risks.                                     enriching lives.
    In actuality, risk avoidance is characteristic
of perfectionistic behaviors. We often call these              Risk Evaders
children “Risk Evaders” (Adelson, 2007; Adelson                    As noted above, Risk Evaders are children who
& Wilson, 2009). Risk Evaders tend to avoid try-               exhibit unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors that tend to
ing new things or participating in competitions or             prevent them from participating in activities that have
even activities in which they believe they may not             the possibility for failure, such as Calla who refused to
perform perfectly. By avoiding these activities, Risk          attend art camp. Other Risk Evaders may not audition for
Evaders often miss out on excellent opportunities              school plays, try out for sports teams, or join in extracur-
for further development of talent, self-esteem, and            ricular activities. Competition is particularly an issue for
confidence in their abilities. As parents, the under-          these children, as they fear revealing imperfections. These
lying motivation for avoiding these activities and             behaviors may also manifest themselves in academic
how to help your child extend his or her participa-            settings as students who “forget” to complete assignments
tion is difficult to understand.                               or seldom volunteer answers in class discussions. Table 2
                                                               outlines some characteristics of Risk Evaders.
Perfectionistic Behaviors
    Rather than classify children as perfectionists,           Table 2
we prefer to discuss behaviors that tend to relate to           Characteristics of Risk Evaders
perfectionistic tendencies. Thus, we can focus on
changing behaviors, rather than labeling children,
                                                                Avoid challenges
which can have negative consequences. Perfectionis-
tic behaviors are associated with a focus on achieving          Miss school assignments
high goals. These behaviors may be negative (i.e.,
unhealthy) or positive (i.e., healthy). As parents and          Lack of participation in school activities
caregivers for gifted children, our goal is to help chil-       and competitive situations
dren move from using perfectionism in an unhealthy
way to exhibiting healthy behaviors that continue to            Hide perceived imperfections
address their need to achieve high goals.                       Focus on outcomes
    Healthy perfectionism leads children to strive
for excellence, set high (yet manageable) goals, and            Narrow focus of interests
pursue their areas of talent. Unhealthy perfection-

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development into well-rounded citizens. These behav-         area and enjoyment than serious competition. These are
iors may even carry over to children avoiding activities     excellent ways for children to try out new areas of inter-
such as a family game that a sibling is better at, or that   est without pressure for outstanding performance.
the child does not think he or she is likely, or even            That being said, as a child begins to develop elite
guaranteed, to win.                                          or advanced talent in a specific area, higher levels of
    Through their reluctance to participate in a vari-       competition may be necessary to fully develop his or her
ety of activities, children miss out on opportunities to     talent. Auditions or portfolios may be required to attend
develop skills and interests in a variety of areas. This     top schools or gain access to elite trainers or programs.
diversity of activities helps to develop well-roundedness.   Children who shy away from these experiences may miss
By trying many new things, children can discover new         out on opportunities to develop their talent. To develop
interests and learn how to cope with mistakes and im-        elite status, children may need to engage in competitive
perfections. They can learn how to enjoy participation       activities. Competition will also allow children to hone
without the pressure of a perfect or faultless perfor-       their own skills in response to others’ advanced abilities
mance. A talented pianist may enjoy playing soccer,          and will allow them to receive feedback on where they
even if she isn’t the star player. A gifted writer may       are in developing and exhibiting their skills. Parents
enjoy time spent participating in a community theater        can help their children in these instances by focusing
production. The key is being willing to try a variety of     on enjoyment of the activity and striving to outperform
activities and risk not being the best but instead focus-    their personal performances rather than other children’s
ing on the joy of the activity itself.                       performances. For example, the goal should be to score
                                                             more goals than the last game, rather than beat the op-
Competition and Risk-Taking                                  posing team.
    One way to encourage participation and joy of the
discipline is to find activities that avoid competition      Developing Healthy Risk-Taking
between participants. For Risk Evaders who are reluc-            The goal of parents of Risk Evaders is to help chil-
tant to engage in situations in which they may not be        dren move from unhealthy perfectionism to healthy
as good as other children, cooperative or noncompeti-        risk-taking. To encourage children to begin taking risks
tive situations may be more successful starting points.      in activities in which they may fail, make a mistake, or
A child may be more willing to create art as part of an      their faults may be shown, parents are often in need of
afterschool enrichment class than for a national art         advice. Children who are reluctant to participate in ac-
competition. Similarly, many community and recreation        tivities due to unhealthy perfectionism need a support-
centers offer art, dance, gymnastics, or swimming classes    ive and safe environment, concrete and specific praise,
for children who are more focused on exposure to a new       and low-risk starting points.

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                    Safe Environments                                                        These types of praise help children appreciate their
                                                                                          individual successes and will help to fortify their self-
                        Parents can create safe and supportive environments
                                                                                          concepts to withstand disappointments that come from
                    within their families to encourage healthy risk-taking.
                                                                                          occasional failures.
                    By acknowledging your own mistakes, you can work
                    to create a place in which honesty, rather than perfec-
                                                                                          Low-Risk Starting Points
                    tion, is valued. Recently, one of the authors forgot a
                    deadline at work. As she relayed the story at the dinner                  For children who are extreme Risk Evaders, it can
                    table, her family was able to see not only that she made              be a struggle to entice participation in any new activ-
                    a mistake but also how she coped with it by discuss-                  ity. Thus, parents may need to start on small scales and
                    ing the issue with her boss. This opened up to a further              build on successes. A child who enjoys pick-up games of
                    discussion over dessert about how she was frustrated                  ball in the neighborhood may be encouraged to join the
                    with herself for the mistake but how she could overcome               community t-ball league. A children’s church choir may
                    and continue and that it would not prevent her from                   be less intimidating for a shy, but talented, singer than
                    volunteering for other projects in the future. Her family             a large school choir. Organizations such as Girl Scouts,
                    talked and shared about how they all felt when they are               Boy Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, and 4H also
                    disappointed in themselves and how they coped. Com-                   provide opportunities for children to try a variety of
                    munication is the key to creating a safe environment for              activities in a noncompetitive environment. As children
                    children within a family.                                             grow in skills and confidence, they can extend their
                                                                                          activities to include more competitive environments.
                    Concrete and Specific Praise
                                                                                          Suggestions for Parents
                        Another way to build a safe and secure environment
                    and raise a child’s confidence level is to provide concrete               Although these guidelines provide a general sense of
                    and specific praise. Empty praise or continual praise that            direction, many parents wish for specific ideas for their
                    is not linked to specific actions does little to help a child         Risk Evaders. These suggestions are meant to be activi-
                    develop a sense of accomplishment or pride in his or her              ties that you could start as family traditions on a regular
                    abilities. It is possible to provide your child uncondition-          basis, or even as one-time experiences, tomorrow.
                    al and continual love and support, while communicating                Family Adventure Night
                    praise at specific actions. When parents consistently find                One simple way to encourage healthy risk-taking is to
                    concrete actions and accomplishments to encourage in                  institute “Family Adventure Night.” Family Adventure
                    their children, the children learn to find joy in their suc-          Night is a chance for families to cooperate and try new
                    cesses, as well. For example, “I am so proud of how hard              activities that are outside of their comfort zone. By model-
                    you worked on that pirouette” is more meaningful to a                 ing healthy risk-taking, parents show children that having
                    child than, “You are such a good dancer.” See Table 3 for             fun is more important than avoiding mistakes. These
                    more examples of specific praise.                                     adventure nights provide a place to develop a safe and
Table 3                                                                                   secure environment for imperfections and also provide
                                                                                          low-risk starting points for risk-taking. Family Adventure
Types of Praise                                                                           Nights might be athletic activities, such as miniature golf,
                                                                                          bowling, or roller skating. They could also be impromptu
 Empty Praise                                   Concrete Praise                           activities at home, such as charades, karaoke, or learning
                                                                                          a new dance. With slightly more preparation, families
 “You are a good dancer.”                       “I love how hard you worked on            could work together on a new recipe, craft, or household
                                                getting that pirouette right.”            project. The idea is to pick an activity that no one has
                                                                                          a particular talent for but that everyone would consider
 “You are so smart.”                            “You learned so much this week            enjoyable. This provides an opportunity to laugh at your
                                                about your history project.”              own mistakes and enjoy participation rather than perfec-
                                                                                          tion or high performance. These activities also provide
 “Great job.”                                   “Excellent job scoring that goal
                                                                                          an opportunity for parents to be an example, sharing with
                                                during the game today! I can tell you     their children any uneasiness about trying something new,
                                                practiced so hard.”                       excitement over improvements (rather than winning),
                                                                                          and mistakes made.
 “You beat the Cardinals.”                      “You made more baskets than you
                                                did last week.”                           Family Game Nights
                                                                                             Lots of family resources recommend family game
 “You are so creative.”                         “I love your idea for the art project—    nights to build community and facilitate communica-
                                                it is so unique. You have great ideas.”

    17 • Parenting for High
    3 • Parenting for High PotentialPotential
                                                                                            Parenting Perfectionists      PHP

tion. For Risk Evaders, family game nights have the          Homework
additional benefit of providing opportunities to develop
                                                                 This article, so far, has focused on extracurricular
skills related to coping with competition and overcom-
                                                             activities and talents, but what about Risk Evaders and
ing the fear of losing. Friendly competition on a board
                                                             academic pursuits? Risk Evaders may avoid completing
game can be a learning opportunity for children when
                                                             or attempting school assignments when they feel that
parents purposefully guide discussion toward the way
                                                             they may not be able to do them perfectly. Rather than
to cope with mistakes and talking through their own
                                                             risk exposing their faults, the child may choose to “lose”
mistakes in the game. In addition, emphasis should be
                                                             assignments or “forget” to do them entirely. This often
placed on effort, skills, and fun rather than the ultimate
                                                             comes to a boiling point for families during homework
winner or loser of the game. Games such as Cranium
                                                             time. To prevent confusion, parents can work to main-
provide opportunities to try skills in a variety of areas
                                                             tain clear lines of communication with the teacher. By
(such as drawing, solving word puzzles, trivia, music,
                                                             working as a team, teachers and parents facilitate stu-
and acting). Other games develop unique skills such as
                                                             dent success. Parent-teacher communications should be
visual acuity (e.g., Pictureka), spelling and vocabulary
                                                             ongoing. Sometimes, children will display perfectionistic
(e.g., Bananagrams), logic (e.g., Set), flexibility (e.g.,
                                                             tendencies in one setting and not the other, so teach-
Twister), or general silliness (e.g., Mad Gab). The key
                                                             ers and parents may not both realize that the child is
is to find games that the whole family will enjoy playing
                                                             exhibiting unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors. Whether
together, and parents can model appropriate responses
                                                             the behaviors occur in one or both places, teachers and
to competitive outcomes.
                                                             parents working together is the key. Parents concerned
Story Sharing                                                with the effects of risk-avoidance on homework and
    Story sharing is seeking out and identifying stories     academic performance should schedule a meeting with
that illustrate healthy risk-taking and sharing them with    the teacher. Ask the teacher about daily and weekly
your children. Library books, television shows, mov-         homework expectations and consider having your child
ies, and biographies can provide ample examples for          use a planner to record assignments and for parents and
discussion. Even audition shows for reality television       teachers to communicate with one another.
can be used to discuss the bravery of contestants with an        Because Risk Evaders are often focused on the out-
aspiring performer. Biographies of eminent personalities     come and whether they will be perfect, parents need to
often show examples of times in which it was necessary       help them learn to appreciate the process and how they
to risk failure to pursue dreams. Posing questions during    grow and improve during the process. This is particularly
the story can enhance the discussion and guide chil-         important when children are working on projects or
dren to develop an understanding for themselves. For         studying for tests that cover an extended time in history.
example, asking the child what might have happened if        Rather than wait for the teacher to evaluate and grade
Louis Pasteur had thrown away his “contaminated” agar        the project or test, talk with your child about what she
plates rather than noticing the antibacterial proper-        or he did well and what he or she will do differently next
ties of penicillin. In another situation, a child could      time. Also take the time to celebrate the completion of
consider	how	Helen	Keller	must	have	felt	the	first	time	     the project rather than waiting and celebrating a grade.
she stepped onto stage to give a speech during her long          When helping a Risk Evader move from avoiding
career as a public speaker, knowing the obstacles that       assignments to doing them, you may notice that he
she would have to overcome.                                  or she wants reassurance with each step (or problem)
 PHP           Parenting Perfectionists

Parents of Risk Evaders can                                                     Resources
                                                                                Community Organizations
work to create a safe and secure                                                Girl Scouts of the USA
environment and provide                                                         Boy Scouts of America           4-H
specific praise and low-risk                                                    Boys & Girls Clubs
starting points for activities.                                                 of America

                 that it was done perfectly. Avoid checking the entire
                                                                                Adderholdt-Elliott, M. (1989). Perfectionism and under-
                 assignment and talk with your child about the purpose
                                                                                   achievement. Gifted Child Today, 12(1), 19–21.
                 of homework. Emphasize the importance of practice and
                 of growing rather than on being perfect each time. Once        Adelson, J. L. (2007). A “perfect” case study: Perfection-
                 the homework is returned, talk about whether the child           ism in academically talented fourth graders. Gifted
                 has	mastered	the	concept	or	needs	more	practice.	Keep	           Child Today, 30(4), 14–20.
                 in	mind	that	mastery	is	not	the	same	as	100%	correct.
                 Final Thoughts                                                 Adelson, J. L., & Wilson, H. E. (2009). Letting go of
                                                                                  perfect: Overcoming perfectionism in kids. Waco, TX:
                     One of the most frustrating situations is to parent a        Prufrock Press.
                 child who exhibits unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors.
                 This article has detailed the specific characteristics of      Greenspon, T. S. (2007). What do when good enough isn’t
                 unhealthy and healthy perfectionism, specifically as they         good enough. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.
                 relate to Risk Evaders. Parents of Risk Evaders can work
                 to create a safe and secure environment and provide            Authors’ Note:
                 specific praise and low-risk starting points for activities.       Hope E. Wilson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of
                 Specifically, they can begin family traditions such as         elementary education at Stephen F. Austin State Uni-
                 Family Adventure Night, game nights, or sharing sto-           versity in Nacogdoches, TX. She earned her doctorate in
                 ries. Homework can be an especially frustrating time for       educational psychology with an emphasis in gifted edu-
                 unhealthy perfectionists, but parents can help children        cation from the University of Connecticut. Prior to her
                 by encouraging time management skills, maintaining             career in academia, Hope was an elementary art teacher
                 clear communication with teachers, and celebrating and         in Texas. She, along with her coauthor, wrote Letting Go
                 acknowledging the process rather than the outcome.             of Perfect: Overcoming Perfectionism in Kids, a practical
                     Although Jana’s daughter was not interested in the         guide for parents and teachers to help children overcome
                 art classes, eventually a solution was reached. After some     unhealthy perfectionism.
                 advice, Jana decided to discuss the summer activities
                 with Calla. She was, indeed, afraid of not being as good           Jill L. Adelson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the
                 as the other children in the classes. After reassurance and    University of Louisville. Dr. Adelson’s experiences with
                 talking through some scenarios, Calla carefully looked         gifted children include teaching fourth grade self-con-
                 through the summer guide for the local recreation center.      tained gifted and talented classes and working in classes
                 She was excited to learn they offered chess classes, and       as a professional development staff member for Project
                 Calla enthusiastically joined the class, even though she       M3: Mentoring Mathematical Minds. She provides pro-
                 (nor either of her parents) had ever played the game!          fessional 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).

 19   •   Parenting for High Potential