15 July 2013

Little Miss Perfectionist

My teacher's report for my last year at primary school begins 'Helen is never satisfied with anything but the very best in her work...'

How, at the age of 11, had I already found myself on the path to a lifetime of measuring up to often unrealistic, self-imposed standards? What drove that skinny, introverted little girl to strive for perfection?

Photo: Peter Gettins Photography
The previous year, I had been one of eight children put up a class due to overcrowding in our year stream, meaning I did the final year twice. We were selected on the basis of being the brightest in our age group. Maybe I felt I had to work harder to prove I deserved that accolade, or simply to ensure I kept up with the older children.

Possibly I wanted to match my younger sister, who had to be given extra work to keep her stimulated at school.

Perhaps, though, it was the constant refrain of 'Just do your best' that set me off on the wrong track.

The words are meant to reassure; to prepare a child for low achievement or make them feel better in the face of failure: 'Don't worry, you did your best.'

Now I wonder whether this doesn't just confuse some children. How do you know what 'your best' is? Have you tried hard enough if you spend an hour trying to work out a maths' problem? Or a week writing an essay? If you get a grade E, was it because you didn't try hard enough, or because you're just not very good at the subject?

In my first year at secondary school, my chemistry teacher awarded me A for Effort and C for Attainment (generous, given that I got 28% in the end-of-year exam). I still wonder what system he - or any of the teachers - used to assess Effort and to determine that I was giving it my all, in spite of my poor results. From the primary school report above, it's also apparent that doing your 'very best' doesn't necessarily result in grade As across the board. 

Discussing this with a male friend, he suggested, somewhat tongue in cheek, that there is a gender difference in how children interpret 'Just do your best'.

'Girls think they have to be perfect,' he said. 'Boys think they just need to have a stab at it.'

Irrespective of gender, I'm sure that some children do take this the wrong way. I know that I, for one, have never quite figured out what 'good enough' means.

* * *

You'll notice that my worst grade on this report is for Creative Writing: C. I'd like to think my writing skills have improved since then. Check out the start of my novel and see if you agree.


Liz Goes said...

My little perfectionist was very hard on herself when she was a child. If it wasn't perfect it was hopeless. Now she settles for as perfect as she can make it.
Now I know why there's hardly EVER any proof reading to do of your writing!x

Helen Barbour said...

Knowing when to stop editing is difficult for any writer - for a perfectionist, it's ten times harder!

www.elizajanegoesahead.com said...

I can understand that! Have a look at my old website www.elizajanegoesahead.com where I've made a start back into the blogging world. I'm still a little daunted by my new blog site (there's a link from the above website) - and by twitter. I think I need someone to give me a shove and some confidence. Your blog is superb. L

Helen Barbour said...

Thanks for the encouragement re my blog, Liz. I'm looking forward to following your new one.

I'm happy to chat through what I've learnt about Twitter with you - I'm by no means an expert, but certainly no longer a novice!