What Is Wrong With the Tiger Mom’s Approach: How Perfectionism Undermines Persistence

Persistence is the most important predictor of success and fulfillment in gifted children. As bright and intense children grow into their social and emotional lives and develop their abilities to succeed in school or other activities that take into account their special talents, being able to work through a challenging situation can be problematic. Parenting to develop persistence is so critical and yet truly challenging with perfectionistic children.

While persistence is clearly made up of passion and perfectionistic motivation, getting all of these elements to work together can at times seem impossible. Unfortunately, perfectionism can seriously undermine persistence, because young children have a very difficult time explaining their own frustrations to the adults who take care of them. Eventually persistence, passion, and perfectionism can become tangled up into a gridlock of inaction that leads to avoidance of certain difficult behaviors, underachievement, and loss of direction as the child grows into a teenager. This cluster of misfires happens slowly and is entrenched in the bright child’s psyche long before it is obvious and causing problems at home, at school, and with friends.

Let’s look at an example: Marjorie is an energetic fast-thinking and fast-moving intense 5-year-old. Her parents are careful to keep her busy, engaged in learning, and “happy.” When Marjorie gets upset about not being able to complete a project or not being able to play her own way she can become inconsolable, sad, and frustrated. Marjorie will retreat into her mother’s arms and refuse to continue whatever she is doing. If she is at a party at grandmas house she may hide under the bed. At school, when she feels overwhelmed she will go to the bookshelves and read instead of engaging in group activities. Teachers, parents, and other close relatives don’t understand her “strange” behavior. Does Marge just need more discipline? Does she need better parents or a good child therapist? Confusion reigns in the house, school, or  grandma’s house.

Margie has shut down because her passion, perfectionism, and persistence have lead to a non-negotiable gridlock. She wants to try something new. She doesn’t have the skills or patience to learn the new materials. She blames herself for being unsuccessful. Marjorie, who is wound-up and over-stimulated, has given up in defeat. What can the adults around her do to help her recover her positive energy and her healthy and exuberant state of mind?  

Here are some ideas that will help. First and foremost, adults should empathize with their child’s pain and confusion by saying, “I can see that you are feeling sad and frustrated.” Teachers can let the child go to a safe place in the classroom. Grandparents can respect their grandchild’s feelings and avoid talking about how their grandchild needs more structure and discipline from their parents. Grandparents don’t need to solve the problem. But it will help if they just accept that their grandchild’s frustration is normal. In other words, it helps to not over-react.

The next step is to normalize the problem so that the child does not feel more uncomfortable than they already are feeling. “I can see that trying to catch that ball or spell that word or draw a school yard is really hard for you. I know other children have the same kinds of problems. Tell me how you are feeling about what just happened?” And then you need to listen carefully for their response and say it back to them so they know you heard.

There are definitely things that you should not do.
1.  Do not scream at your child and share your frustrations.
2.  Do not humiliate your child for having a tantrum or meltdown.
3.  Do not promise your child that they never have to try again.
4.  Do not become a vigilant micro-manager who avoids all potentially painful situations.

These four DON’TS will help to tame or normalize perfectionism and derail the development of avoidant behavior. Your child’s very important motivation―to stay with a task that seems to be way too hard to accomplish―will have room to grow. Helping your child keep trying is what is important.   Pressuring or demanding that your child do well will backfire on you sooner or later no matter what the Tiger Mom professes.

Problems or issues with persistence will arise over and over again. Issues can range from learning to read, or do math or spell or make friends, or play sports or learn the piano. Whatever the issue your child is struggling with, remember not to over-react. Stay calm and be positive. Try to understand their frustration, and then help them to try again.

In general, gifted children can have a hard time learning how to learn, because in most instances they are able to solve a problem very quickly. Working on projects that require ongoing attention will teach your child to stick with their ideas through the exciting times and the frustrating times.