Perfection or Perfectionism

By Tania Gaffney–Deputy Principal Primary

The Montessori concept of Human Tendencies may be something you have read about before.  There are a few different lists of tendencies that Montessorians have come up with over the years, but they are all fairly similar.  I want to talk about one human tendency from that list, which is perfection, or we could call it exactness or precision.  This is the tendency to perfect ourselves by striving for accuracy, precision and the elimination of mistakes.

When you’re striving for accuracy in an activity, there is really only one way to get there and that is by repetition, which is really just another word for practice.  Sometimes we come across a child that is averse to repetition or practice, and in fact is averse to learning new things or going outside of their comfort zone. The reasons behind this can be in case they make a mistake and fail and so seem in their own minds to be no good at it.  Instead of striving for perfection or accuracy these children, who are often called perfectionists, struggle with wanting to be right first time, with no mistakes.

If you think about learning something new, how many of us could say that we could do ‘it’ right the first time, with no mistakes.  We might have been ‘quite good’ at something first off, but it was probably because we had some sort of background in it already, e.g. if you’re a violin player then you can probably have a go at the base guitar and be fairly good, but you still won’t be fantastic until you’ve had some practice.

When ākonga are perfectionists and refuse to participate or have a go at something then they are closing themselves off from the possibilities of the world. As adults I think it’s our job to try and open up the world for those children again.  There are some ways that we can help with this, for example, modelling the way we speak about activities: “Look how far you’ve come! Remember what that was like when you first started doing it?”

Model trying something new and failing and being okay with it; use the words, “I’ll have to practise that to get better”.  Another way of supporting practice is by encouraging independence.  Don’t do everything for the child as they then get the idea that they aren’t capable and need an adult to come alongside them and help every step of the way.

Talk regularly over dinner about mistakes you’ve made — encourage the whole family to join in and share, saying what you learned from it or what your plan is for next time, to show that the journey of learning isn’t over for that thing yet. Eventually your child will join in and share their own examples.

This may be a chance for some parents to reflect on their own Human Tendencies, as I’ve heard parents of ‘perfectionist’ children say it’s something that they have struggled with themselves, and may still do.