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Perfectionist children need to receive praise, direction

When our children were born, we had all these ideas about self-esteem building child rearing.

Our kids would be models of hyphenated happiness: self-confident, well-rounded and easy-going. We sought a balance for them, a middle road of well-being. We didn't want them to be lazy or self-indulgent; nor super driven perfectionists. Perhaps we thought we were ordering steaks: Medium rare, please, au jus on the side.

Kids, we've come to understand, cook to their own specifications, and our middle child is definitely well done. Where her older sister lives like a free-flowing river, taking the course of least resistance, and seeking a comfortable, non-challenging level of existence, her younger sister constantly swims against the current and up waterfalls to boot.

The first sign we had of her inner drive occurred at one of the ubiquitous summer children's programs when she was 2. It was a magic show hosted by a mop-headed clown whose principle trick was making a latex zoo of giraffes, poodles and ducks.

My serious little girl caught the clown's eye. "Would you like to do some magic?" she asked my daughter, who nodded.

The clown stretched a balloon and inflated it. "All you have to do is hold it," she said, handing my daughter the round, pink balloon.

As soon as she took it in her tiny fingers, the balloon deflated in a flatulent rush, whipped out of her hand and shot across the room. The clown laughed and the other children howled with glee.

But my daughter's face fell and in a tiny, anguished voice she wailed, over and over again, "I couldn't do magic!"

My heart broke for her that day, as it would again and again for this little girl, now 14, for whom succeeding is innately and relentlessly important. Perfectionists, we've learned, are born, not made, and for better or worse, my middle daughter is a perfectionist still trying to work magic in her life.

She doesn't just want an A, she wants 100 percent. She doesn't just play piano, she wants to hit every note perfectly. She's happy in her hobbies and interests, but she's competitive, even in fun, and wants to do everything well. Her room is tidy. Her handwriting is neat. She wants and creates order in her life. She's the peacemaker and negotiator in our family. She's a one-girl United Nations. And she suffers greatly _ and sometimes dramatically _ when she can't achieve the ends for which she strives.

Researchers tell us "the perfectionist child" is often gifted, although my lesser-driven children have obvious gifts and talents.

Psychologist Steven Richfield makes me feel better, in an article called, The Parent Coach: Help For The Perfectionistic Child," when he writes, "A popular misconception surrounding perfectionism is that it is always the product of driven parents who push their children toward endless heights. No doubt many children's strivings are related to gaining parental approval but perfectionism warps that normally healthy base for motivation into a self-imposed, tyrannical demand for flawless performance in life. Even parents with high standards don't "produce' perfectionism but may find their child interpreting their expectations this way. The roots of perfectionism are often temperamental, with links to conscience development and native abilities."

He notes that the perfectionist child often translates "do your best" into "perform perfectly." That certainly seems to be the case for my daughter, and also makes her the occasional butt of her sister's jokes. No doubt most perfectionists, often labeled "Type A" personalities, can relate to the drive for achievement as well as to the dismay caused by others' accompanying scorn. My homeschooled daughter doesn't suffer much beyond her sister's light jabs. But high-achieving children in school are often mocked and taunted by peers, even as they're celebrated by teachers and parents. The mixed messages can be confusing.

Dr. Linda Silverman, of the Gifted Development Center in Colorado, suggests celebrating perfectionism in our children, while helping them seek an inner balance.

"Perfectionism is often maligned," she said. "It is perceived as a personality flaw, a psychoneurotic tendency, a symptom of maladjustment, a bad habit, or an undesirable characteristic that should be firmly rooted out of ones makeup. Parents are almost inevitably blamed as the cause of the "problem.' Cures include setting more realistic expectations and using self-talk to convince yourself that you don't have to be perfect." She adds, "The problem, however, may be in our attitudes toward perfectionism, rather than in the characteristic itself."

Perfectionism, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad, says Silverman. Perfectionists are in the good company of individuals like Michelangelo and Marie Curie. "If you harness your perfectionism to work for you rather than letting it control you," declares Silverman, "you can change the world."

Don't let your perfectionist child punish himself for failing. Help your child focus energies on future successes. And most importantly, help your child hold onto his or her ideals and believe in the ability to reach them!

Working with our perfectionist children to help them achieve a balanced understanding of the world and their place in it can help them reach their full potential and make their innate perfectionism a gift instead of a curse.

_ Freelance writer Theresa Willingham is a homeschooling mother in Odessa.