My daughter gets her sense of perfectionism honestly. She came home from school a couple of weeks ago upset because she received a 94 on her paper – a 94! On one hand I was laughing, while on the other I was cursing myself inside because I saw myself; in graduate school I practically had a nervous breakdown if I did not score the highest in the class on every single paper, test, presentation – I had to be the best it everything that had anything to do with intellect. I was never the cheerleader, never the ‘pretty girl’ – but since starting my undergraduate career, I found my niche – I was smart if I applied myself just a little. And it appears my daughter has discovered the same at the ripe age of 10.
This week after her teacher made reference to a slight error she made, my little one feigned a sore throat because she could not bear the thought of going to school and facing her class – she was mortified. I blame myself for her pain – why is it that this negative feedback causes such severe anxiety? She is one of the strongest kids I know – having faced down bullies in the past, she’s developed a sense of self I didn’t have until my thirties. That being said, why would a simple critique cause such a harsh reaction?
Sure, I know there is embarrassment. Kids notice when other kids get a negative response from a teacher – and they talk. I remember being in high school (I was a horrible student!) and being told in front of my entire English class – by my teacher – that I would likely return to her class the following year and would never amount to anything. It is awful to hear that in front of your peers; but that was thirty years ago. My generation heard that we did things wrong – we heard the word ‘no’, we were told that we did not perform well or that our lines needed work or that the ‘C’ we received was not good enough and we were smarter than that. We know how to digest being told negative things about ourselves because we have heard constructive – albeit negative – feedback from the people who love us the most. In any work that we do in life, whether it is performing in front of an audience, preparing a meal, driving a car, painting a picture, or repairing a fractured bone – there are things that can and do go wrong. There are better ways to complete the task and ways that will devastate the task. If you overload a cake with baking soda instead of powder, it will not rise correctly; If you don’t understand the concept of gradation, your painting will lack depth; and if you have not learned how to correctly set a bone, the patient may never walk again. People need to hear negative critique, and it needs to start young.
Imagine being told from birth that everything you do is perfect. You’ve made the perfect poo in your diaper. Perfect first steps. Perfect words, perfect writing, perfect job dressing yourself, perfect job in your dance practice……..and so on until you learn to drive and perfect job as we go out to practice driving. I am scared to death as you swerve the car every which way but I don’t want to hurt your feelings and everyone deserves a trophy – so great job kiddo!! Then you fail your driver’s test by wrecking the car. How exactly does that help? By supporting the ‘everyone wins’ society, we are not rewarding those who excel, and we are not really pushing those who need to work harder. We are not being honest – and that is failing our children.
Being honest does not mean that we yell, that we degrade or humiliate – it means that as adults we learn to support, to give appropriate feedback, and to empower our children and one another. We can teach those we love (and they can teach us) how to do better, how to grow, and ultimately, how to become better human beings. By growing as individuals we forge more powerful connections and grow stronger voices – and ultimately, this is the most powerful thing of all.