Striving for Artistic Perfection: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Fam Faves Artworks
Masterpiece made at Artworks Studio.

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Ever since our daughter started kindergarten last fall, she has become a perfectionist. Mostly about her artwork. She needs more eraser than pencil when she draws. She’ll rub a hole through the sheet of paper, then she pulls out another one. If she can’t make her drawing perfect, she storms off or melts in a puddle of tears.  

Chill Mom

Dear C.M.,

Wanting her drawing to meet some ideal vision that she sees in her mind’s eye can lead to great artistry. However, the cost is time, materials, and the emotional strain on herself and those around her. Perfectionism can be too much of a good thing.

External Origins

There are many factors in your daughter’s situation that could be the cause of her perfectionism. Most will diminish over time.

Her short life-time encompasses an historic period of uncertainty. The pandemic and its ramifications have elevated the stress level in families and classrooms, and those few other social settings she may have been in for the past three years. We adults have had to do things in new ways which influences how we manage our days with children. Things have been tense, to say the least. If you mess up and spend too much time indoors, unmasked, and someone you’re with happens to have the virus, the consequences can range from a week of missed work or school to unwittingly spreading the germ to a more vulnerable person who ends up in the hospital.

Stressed out adults might bring on demands, criticisms, and complaints about unmet personal needs to negatively impact a child. She fears messing up because of an explosive or tearful reaction in her caregiver. If the adult outbursts are solely due to the ongoing health crisis, in due time these will subside. If your daughter is still adjusting to the institution of kindergarten, she’s well on her way to learning how to manage twelve more years of school. She’ll get used to it.

A parent’s personality and parenting style can play a role in a child’s perfectionism. You might recognize this intergenerational pattern in the values and standards that have been passed down with such admonitions as “Always do better than your best” or “Failure isn’t an option.” This type of parent rewards achievement, dismisses effort, and belittles struggle.

School, too, contributes to a child’s self-doubts when behavior and academic skills are constantly monitored and pointed out by the authority figures. A child may not only fear the evaluation of her teacher but of the peer group whose acceptance is critical to her self-esteem.

Internal Origins

Certain traits of behavior are inherited – just like eye-color. The trait of tenacity – holding an image of perfection in one’s mind and not giving up until it is achieved – can be the most difficult for parents to deal with. It’s not easy on the child either. Accommodating this trait often means allowing enough time, materials, and support for her to feel successful. 

Her high expectations may be due to special gifts, possibly in her case, in the arts. She may believe that her artistic output is the reason people see any value in her. She equates an imperfect  drawing with having no self-worth.

And or, she compares herself to other students in her kindergarten class, believing that whatever she does must be at least as good as, if not better than, what they can do. This impossible standard that she has set about her standing among her classmates spills over into her solitary activities at home.

Realistic Expectations

Help her prevent disappointment in herself.

Use yourself as an example of “Oops, that wasn’t a very round pancake I just made. Looks more like a crab with 3 pincers!” Re-plan your day as time runs out, “I’ll get to laundry tomorrow. Everyone still has something clean to wear.” Let your child see that lofty goals can’t always be met, but when you reduce your expectations to “Good enough”, you can be satisfied.

Have you kept samples of her artwork? She might be impressed with the progress she’s made since her scribbles from toddlerhood. If she is serious about perfecting her artwork, let her learn about adult artists and their skills journeys. Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez explores the childhood and early career path of Georgia O’Keefe. Sandy’s Circus: a Story about Alexander Calder by Tanya Lee Stone shows the acclaimed sculptor as a child, crafting tiny animals and circus performers out of wire and other scraps to the delight of the neighborhood, and his brief career as an engineer before enrolling in art school. Then he moved back and forth between Paris and New York City to test his ability to make art his livelihood.

Consider taking your aspiring artist to a local art gallery! The Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Art Museum at St. John’s College in Annapolis is reopening February 17 after a three-year pandemic closure. Visitors of all ages will be invited to draw on the walls! Acrylic markers will be provided. Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, MD will be exhibiting women artists in an exhibit in March. Encourage your daughter to critique the professionals – what does she like and not like about the works? The artists on display have had many years to improve upon their skills.

Lighten Up

Remember that when her brain is awash in stress hormones, your frustrated artist isn’t able to see that there are solutions to her dilemma. Suggest taking a break, perhaps with a walk outside or a snack. Wait for her to regain her calm, which is more likely after she knows her feelings were heard by a caring adult. Now you can offer to use your well-honed geometry skills to mark both sides and the high point of the rainbow she’s envisioning, or to show her how to achieve symmetry by folding the paper in half. You can add calming music to the room, brighten the lighting, and forecast that she will have a good enough drawing for today.

Or switch gears to an indoor science activity! Use a glass of water, a mirror, and a darkened room to create a rainbow of light beams!

Everyone enjoys a nice rainbow after a storm.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum where children are always invited to hang their work on the wall. She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, February 27: Effective Discipline Techniques; March 13: “I Had it First!” Teaching Conflict Resolution; March 27: Ages and Stages 0-5-years.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.