What I learned about Perfectionism and Gifted Children

Perfectionism is a topic that I haven’t really written about. I have had only a few students in nearly 10 years of teaching gifted students to suffer from it. So, for me I haven’t really explored it much. I know I am probably behind the curve a little, but I am trying to catch up.

I am reading Gifted Education in Ireland and the United States, which is a collaboration between CTY Ireland at Dublin City University, and the Center for Gifted Education at William and Mary. I love this book.The research the authors have done is top-notch. I was inspired to write this post as I am reading chapter 8 which is entitled, Addressing Concerns About the Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Students by Jennifer Riedl Cross, PhD, and Tracy L. Cross, PhD. The section that I really hit me today was about perfectionism.

I know it is important to have expectations for your gifted children either in your own home or in your classroom. Which is absolutely fine. But, when those standards begin to affect the child to where they can no longer meet the expectations it becomes unhealthy.

Perfectionism can come in three forms:

  • Self-oriented: when the gifted child is expecting perfection from themselves
  • Other-oriented: when the gifted child is expecting perfection from others
  • Socially prescribed: when the gifted child is “expecting perfection of oneself in response to perceived expectations of society.” (pg. 184)

I have to be honest, before reading this section of the book, I never thought about how gifted students perceive perfection, or even where they got the notion that they have to be perfect. In the book, the authors look at some research as to where some of this perception comes from. Some of the research suggests it comes from a desire to be accepted but that acceptance is threatened by imperfection. Some environments that foster this are:

  • “Families in which judgments and critiques are frequently voiced risk raising a child who pursues perfection to avoid judgement and to feel securely acceptable.
  • Families in which there is a push-pull or “yes, but…” dynamic, where the constant message is “This is OK, but you could have done better,” risk raising children who believe they are never good enough.
  • Families in which parents or other adults chronically complete tasks a child undertakes may be giving the message that there is a right and a wrong way to do things, and the child is always wrong.” (pg. 185)

As teachers and parents we need to have standards and expectations for our students and children. But we must also remember that gifted children can and should fail. We don’t want our children to be perfectionists. We want them to have a healthy view of success and failure. There is always a lot one can learn from failure. Edison once said about his frustration of getting the lightbulb to work: “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways it won’t work.” Edison learned from his failures just like we need to teach our gifted children that there are many valuable lessons to be learned from failure. Dave Burgess, Author of Teach Like a Pirate, says “If you haven’t failed lately in the classroom you aren’t pushing far enough.” 

What lessons do you point out to your gifted children and students that they can learn when they fail at an assignment or project? How do you fight the battle of perfectionism?


One thought on “What I learned about Perfectionism and Gifted Children

  1. I was one of those children who attempted to conform to all 3 environments, but in addition, I added one more. I guess you could call it a combination of all 3 forms. I attempted (and still do to some degree) to be perfect so people would understand my gifted nature better. By covering all of their bases and then adding several of my own, I would strive for such a thoroughly comprehensive answer that I became, in effect, overwhelmingly incomprehensible. In my mind, if I was perfect, everyone would understand and if they didn’t, it must have been my faulty or incomplete explanation. Ah…the joys of being gifted.

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