An Interview with Sylvia Rimm: On Perfectionism in the Gifted

By Michael Shaughnessy.

Question: Dr. Rimm, why does perfectionism seem to be a problem for gifted children?

Answer: Perfectionism is very close to excellence, and, of course, parents and teachers encourage excellence in children. In our great excitement at their performance, we describe their work as perfect and we award A plusses and 100 percent–all very deserving and appropriate. In fact, many gifted children go several years without the experience of making mistakes in school. Being perfect, right, and smartest easily becomes part of their persona, a persona developed by a combination of who they are and what the important adults and peers in their lives expect of them. Many talent areas demand excellence, such as music, dance, and gymnastics. Gifted children deliver this excellence, and it becomes both a good and bad habit–good when they strive for excellence; and bad when they can’t tolerate mistakes or criticism, or when their fears of a less than perfect performance prevent their performing at all.

Question: Are there different types of perfectionism?

Answer: Yes, children can be perfectionistic in only one area, such as art or sports. Perfectionism can also become pervasive and compulsive. Some experts talk about good and bad perfectionism; others differentiate between excellence and perfectionism with the latter being problematic and the first being appropriate. If we have surgery done to us, we would like our surgeon to do it perfectly. Even when we hear a solo violinist or watch a ballet, we have come to expect perfection. Perfect shots on the basketball court score points, and so on. As you see, we have a love/hate relationship with perfectionism.

Question: Would you say perfectionism is a social or an emotional problem?

Answer: When perfectionism interferes with productive achievement and a happy lifestyle, it is a social and an emotional problem. For example, gifted underachievers are often, but not always, perfectionists. They view themselves as either “A” students or failures. I’ve heard more than one tween or teen admit to me or their parents that if they can’t get A’s, there is just no reason to do their work. Sometimes they don’t admit this either to me or even to themselves, but you can see their motivation change as they recognize they can get A’s again. Perfectionism is both a social and an emotional problem when it becomes extreme. If it is only a slight emotional problem, parents and teachers can work with it at home and in the classroom. We should always be trying to encourage excellence while preventing perfectionism, a delicate balance.

Question: How can parents and teachers best deal with a child’s perfectionism?

Answer: There are many things that parents and teachers can do, but please don’t worry if you can’t do them perfectly! Here are a few:

· Praise moderately at least most of the time. Calling a child a good thinker is much better than saying he or she is the smartest or best student, is brilliant, or is a natural athlete. This is not so easy with highly gifted children, so if you slip once in a while, don’t be too hard on yourself.

· Help kids feel satisfied when they have done their best, not necessarily when they have done the best compared to others.

· Read biographies together that show that successful people made mistakes and experienced failures. Emphasize the failures and rejections as well as the successes. You might ask children how they think those successful people must have felt when they were failing: discouraged, temporarily depressed, or confident and optimistic? As you think together of how others stayed motivated, your children or students can find their own solutions in dealing with their disappointments.

· Help children learn to laugh at themselves and their own mistakes, and be a model for them by laughing at some of your own mistakes or expressing your own frustration and moving forward.

Editor’s note: For more suggestions, see “What’s Wrong with Perfect?” at Dr. Rimm’s Web site,

Question: Do some children with perfectionistic tendencies require counseling?

Answer: When perfectionism interferes with school work, extra curricular activities, or a he