Perfectly Imperfect (Tips for helping kids cope with failure)

“It’s RUINED!  It’s not right and it’s ruined!”  Dramatic?  Yes.  A regular occurrence for Riley?  Absolutely.  Many toddlers and preschoolers struggle to cope with disappointment and frustration when things don’t go as planned. Riley is an art perfectionist.  She spends a fair amount of time planning out her “projects” before she gets started, and then she works very deliberately to make things just right.  When something (or sometimes someone) causes her to miss a step and things look different than anticipated, she falls apart for a few minutes.   Cue the calming strategies (time to blow up balloons! See last post).  Liam isn’t so concerned about his art (fortunately he still believes that scotch tape can fix everything), but try to mess with his cars and you might end up hearing, “no!  That’s not right!  I like it this way!”  Kids are in hot pursuit of control at this age.  They have so little that they can control:  Their clothes (please tell me you are letting them choose their own outfits by now), maybe what they eat, and what they draw and play.  It’s not much, when you take into consideration that they probably endure a 12-hour day and might or might not take a nap during that time.  They really want things to go their way when they are creating and playing.  Riley has been known to burst into tears when a drop of water accidentally hits her painting, and Liam completely falls apart if someone knocks over the bridge he built from blocks.  They act as if they’ve been wronged (“why did you make me ruin this?”), but the truth is that they’ve just lost control…again.  Sean and I are both perfectionists.  This doesn’t bode well for our children.  When Sean gets off stage he’s generally in an adrenaline induced state of euphoria.  So basically he’s cracking jokes and talking non-stop.  But every once in a while (and by that I mean twice that I’ve seen in 11 years), he emerges in a funk.  Why?  Because he played an incorrect note.  One, singular incorrect note during a 90 minute show can ruin the whole the experience for him.  Similarly, I cringe every time I find a single typo in a post that’s been up for even one hour (chances are it hasn’t even been viewed yet).  Our poor little children have perfectionism in their genes.  The good news is that we are the masters of exaggerated accidents around here (so much so that the kids coined the term “oopsy Daddy” for even the slightest mistake made in plain sight).  We’re hoping to head it off at the pass before they start really putting pressure on themselves.  While perfectionism isn’t a medical problem (and some fellow perfectionists might argue that it leads to a better work ethic), it does cause kids to put undue pressure on themselves.  And the truth is, the world isn’t perfect and neither is anybody in it.  Below are some tips to help you help your kids cope with imperfection:

1. Empathize: Kids love to hear that their parents once felt like them.  The world is an overwhelming place at times; it’s nice to know that someone else has survived the same circumstances.  The logical thought is to want to jump in and help “fix” it when something goes awry.  Sean and I just discussed this very topic last night.  We want to be able to say, “look!  It’s all better now!” when the art project fails in some way.  What she needs to hear is that we understand what she is feeling (loss of control). Riley responds well when I say, “it looks like you’ve really been working hard on this painting, and you didn’t want that water spot there.  I remember when that happened to my painting when I was 4, and it really upset me”.  She almost always responds, “but how did you fix it?” after she dries her tears.  Which brings us to #2:

2. Problem-solve: Keep in mind that that the empathizing portion of events might take a few minutes, and you might need to take a little walk around the house while you tell your child just how well you understand the feeling of wanting that water spot to go away.  Once your child is calm, you can move into problem-solving mode.  Ask your child what she thinks will help first, then offer two suggestions of your own. Often times they can solve the problem independently once they are able to calm down and move forward.  Grab the pom-poms (metaphorically, of course) and praise her as she embarks on her problem-solving strategy of choice! Sometimes they just need to hear that they are capable of “fixing” mistakes, and that sometimes the finished product is even better than they imagined.  It never hurts to cheer them on a little when the chips are down.

3. Talk about imperfection: Newsflash:  We do not live in a perfect world.  It’s ok when things don’t go according to plan.  We were running late for preschool this morning and the kids just wouldn’t get their shoes on.  When I finally got them into the car and turned around to answer a question Liam asked, I got soaked by an open cup of water left in my car.  There was no time to change.  Riley looked at me, concerned, and asked, “Mommy, what will you do about your wet shirt?”  I smiled and said, “wait for it to dry!”  Certainly I have my moments where I’m ready to blow because everything seems to go wrong at exactly the same time, but I try to keep it in check and use it as an opportunity to teach the kids that you just can’t plan for everything.  Instead of making an excuse, talk about the events leading up to a playdate being cancelled at the last minute.  Point out your own moments of imperfection (appropriate to age and ability to understand).

4. Exaggerate small errors: Is there anything funnier than Daddy spilling ice cubes everywhere?  Not in my house.  Sean is the master of, “oops!  What did I do NOW?”  Liam, who fancies himself the comedian of the family, has really picked up on this and loves to exaggerate his own errors now.  Just this morning he misplaced his water cup and then spent a good ten minutes saying, “Mommy, look what I did now.  I put it on the couch!”  It’s much funnier when he says it, I swear.  Take the pressure off of small failures like spills, wet clothes, etc. by laughing at your own similar failures.  The other day I was making waffles for Riley (in state of complete sleep deprivation) and I forgot to spray the waffle iron before putting the batter in.  She looked like she might cry about the sticky waffles until I jumped in with the “oopsy Mommy” routine.  We had a good laugh about those sticky waffles while I made a fresh batch (and yes, I pointed out my problem-solving strategy of spraying the pan this time!). 

5. Talk about practice: Toddlers and preschoolers fail to understand that many things just take practice.  Riley can’t stand that she can’t play the guitar like her Daddy and ice skate like me.  While she loves to watch us excel at things, she is easily frustrated when she can’t just simply copy us and succeed.  We talk a lot about how much Daddy has to practice, even still, to play the guitar as well as he does.  I recently decided to teach myself how to hula-hoop in order to show the kids that some things just take practice (I’ve gotten surprisingly good over time).  I try a little bit each time when we are outside playing.  We laugh when the hoop falls to the ground and discuss the fact that I need to practice more often.  The other day Riley watched me for a few minutes and said, “look Mommy, your practicing is working!  You’re doing it!”  I wouldn’t say that practice always makes perfect, but often practice makes better.

6. Do copycat squiggle drawings: Riley loves this, mostly because she gets to give me directions.  I let her draw a “design” for a few minutes, without peeking.  When she’s finished, I try to copy her design.  It’s nearly impossible to make an exact copy of most of her complicated designs, so I often say things like, “wow, sometimes it’s hard to do it exactly the same way, but I’ll sure try”.  Then I let her tell me where to fill in the gaps, and we switch roles.  I try to really focus on just doing our best.

7. Don’t let them win: At around age 3, kids start to take an interest in games.  While early success makes it more fun, as they start to approach age 4 it’s important to let them come in second place sometimes too.  The truth is, they will start to play games with other kids in preschool and they won’t always have the deck stacked (note:  I have been known to stack the deck to make Candyland move along a little faster…that game is LONG!).  Instead of referring to winning and losing, we cheer when the first person gets to the finish and then wait while the other players get there too.  It’s not about competition at this age; it’s about finishing the game and enjoying the process.

8. Distract: If the feeling of failure is so overwhelming that the tears won’t stop, it’s time to move on for a little while.  Sometimes kids just need a break from what they’re doing.  If I’m knee-deep in something that isn’t going as planned and is becoming frustrating, I walk away from it for a while.  Sometimes kids need to do the same.  They can always try again later, but trying to force them to fix a mistake or just get over it might cause them to feel more overwhelmed by the situation.  Help them choose another activity and give that one a try another day.

9. Revisit: By revisit I don’t mean point out past failures, but it can help to remind little ones that they were able to solve a problem in the past.  I often remind Riley that she once felt like the rock wall at the park was just too hard, but she kept trying and now she can get to the top in seconds.  I tell her my own stories of practicing something to get better and better.  Use their past successes to help them face future difficulties. 

Feeling like you’ve failed is a tough pill to swallow when you’re little.  They have their whole lives to work on things but, like the rest of us, they want things to be perfect the first time.  Try to take perfect out of your home and focus on attempts and small successes instead.  You might find that it helps your child feel more in control, thereby increasing her success.

You tell me:  How do you help your kids cope with the feeling of failure? 

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


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