Laylee’s always been a smarty pants. Speech, reading, writing, math. They all came easily for her. She spent her life being told how smart she was, how good she was at everything. You’d think all that success and positive feedback would make her confident and willing to take on the world. It ended up having the opposite effect.
By the age of four, Laylee was a total perfectionist, prone to hysterics over each little error and crippled by her desire to do everything exactly right. My fabulous pediatrician gave me some great advice about how to help her learn to laugh off her mistakes and I’m proud to say that today she’s in complete remission from her perfectionist tendencies. In fact, her current teacher had a hard time believing that Laylee was ever a stickler for detail.
My experience with Laylee is what drew me to The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes, a wonderful new picture book by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein, two former Teach For America teachers who noticed the crippling power of perfectionism in the lives of their students.
I caught up with Mark Pett for a phone interview this week and enjoyed talking to him about the inspiration behind the book and his thoughts on learning to get comfortable with making mistakes. He says that in some ways, it’s a book about him, a recovering perfectionist himself.
Mark is a cartoonist and when he was teaching cartooning to kids, he found that many kids got really frustrated because they couldn't draw perfectly the first time. So, he began to teach the sketch process, a sort of artistic draft approach, where the kids learn to feel free to try different techniques and see what works. This freed them to explore and enjoy the process of creating.
The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes reacts to that fear of failure by asking the question, "What would it be like to never make a misstep?" The main character, a girl named Beatrice, feels happy, loved, and validated because she never ever makes mistakes. The book is about her first mistake and how she learns to laugh it off and move on. Making mistakes does change her life but change is not always a bad thing.
In the case of perfectionist kids, change can be crucial. Mark and I played psychologist and talked about the long-term consequences kids experience when they’re terrified to make mistakes. He said that the fear becomes paralyzing and you end up with adults who never want to try new activities because they’re afraid of failing or looking ridiculous. There’s a huge amount of anxiety that goes with this and a tendency to procrastinate.
His advice to parents is similar to the advice I got from Laylee’s doctor years ago. As parents, we need to make ourselves vulnerable so our kids can see us trying and failing so they can learn how to fail. It really is an important skill. We need to model good behavior because our children watch us so carefully and they mimic what we model.
One thing he said that I loved was, “We should not make our identity our successes. We need to take our identity out of it and not make what we do who we are.”
What Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein have written in this book jives so well with what worked for me in helping my daughter to embrace her imperfections and find a way to be happy with who she is. It’s fun and instructive without feeling overly didactic and the illustrations are darling. Look for it in a book store or library near you.