Q: Whenever my 4-year-old son tries something new, he becomes frustrated if he has any difficulty with it. This happens when practicing numbers, letters or anything else I try to teach him. I tell him he’s doing fine and will do better with practice, but it’s not sinking in. He’s a perfectionist in that everything must be “just so.” It worries me, because we have depression, anxiety and OCD on both sides of the family. I’ve also heard that perfectionism is characteristic of oldest children. Does that also apply to only children? Could it be because his father and I have separated? How can I help him not be so hard on himself?
A: I am reminded of Harvey Korman’s line from the film Blazing Saddles: “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.”
My point is you are overthinking the situation, attributing your son’s performance issues to heredity, separation, being the oldest or only child and something else tomorrow. The more you think about this, trying to figure out why he’s perfectionistic, the more you worry. It goes without saying that you need to think straight about this … and you’re not. So, I'll try to help you.
First, lots of children are perfectionistic. Wanting to do things right is a functional trait. Generally, it levels off with maturity. It is not a harbinger of depression, debilitating anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. And no one has ever provided compelling proof that these problems are genetically transmitted. A number of depressed people, for example, have no family history of depression.
Second, your son’s issues are reason enough to stop teaching him academics. Studies have shown that by the third grade, children who learned academics before coming to grade one are indistinguishable from peers of equal ability who did not. Further, he is coming to associate academics with a negative experience. This goes a long way toward explaining the finding that the earlier a child learns to read, the less likely it is that he will enjoy reading at age 16.
Studies have also suggested that the average child’s brain — no matter how “smart” the child may be — is not ready for symbol-based learning (i.e., letters and numbers) until age 6. That is undoubtedly not the only factor, but it is interesting to note that when the typical American child was not exposed to academics until first grade, our literacy rate was much higher.
My best guess is your son’s not frustrated and beating himself up because of depression in your family, being an only child or that you and his father are separated. He’s frustrated because you’re expecting him to do something he’s not developmentally ready to do. Stop teaching academics. Love him and discipline him equally well. Let him enjoy being a 4-year-old.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website, Rosemond.com.
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