Whenever my 4-year-old son tries something new, he becomes frustrated if he has any difficulty at all. This happens when practicing numbers, letters, or anything else I try to teach him. I tell him that he’s doing fine and will do better with practice, but it’s obviously not sinking in. In general, he’s a perfectionist in the sense 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 a result of the fact that his father and I have been separated for a while now? What can I say to him in order to help him not be so hard on himself?
I am reminded of the Harvey Korman line from the “Blazing Saddles,” “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought, cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.”
My intentionally obscure point is that you are overthinking this 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 the answer to why he’s a perfectionist, the more you will worry. It goes without saying that you need to think straight about this, but you’re not.
First, lots of children are perfectionists. Wanting to do things right is a basic and useful trait. Generally, it levels off with maturity. And it’s not a harbinger of depression, debilitating anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. While we’re on those topics, no one has ever provided compelling proof that those problems are genetically transmitted. A good number of depressed people, for example, have no family history of depression.
Maybe your son’s issues should prompt you to stop teaching him academic material. Studies have shown that by third grade, children who did not receive academic education before first grade can rival those who did in ability. That early education is not appreciable. Furthermore, your son may come to associate learning with highly negative feelings. This goes a long way toward explaining the finding that the earlier a child learns to read, the less likely it is he or she will enjoy reading at age 16.
There is also strong evidence to suggest that the average child —no matter how smart he or she may be—is not fully ready for symbol-based learning (i.e., letters and numbers) until the age of six. That is undoubtedly not the only factor, but it is interesting to note that in the days when the typical American child did not begin his or her formal education until first grade, literacy rates were higher.
My best guess is that your son is not frustrated and beating himself up because of depression in your family, being an only child, or the fact 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.