Has My Perfectionism Rubbed Off On My Son?

I never pushed myself, never set my sights high on the horizon, never took failure as a learning experience, but only as a warning to remove something from my purview. Is my 9-year-old son now doing the same thing?

Certainly, one of the most peculiar parts of being a parent is watching the emerging idiosyncratic quirks that slowly bubble up to the surface of your child’s personality, especially when they seem to mirror your own. Here is a person—a separate entity—living outside of your brain, yet somehow seems to have absorbed and reflected so many of your own attitudes and inclinations.

If the culprit is nature, you must assume your anxious disposition or pessimistic temperament originated in your DNA and seeped through the membranes into your unborn child as you lay prostrate and pregnant, pondering the ways you might ruin her. If it’s nurture, you have surely laid the groundwork for his impatience and volatility by tapping your foot angrily while you wait for him to clean up his toys. Either way, you seem to have only yourself to blame.

I was faced with this quandary yesterday when my 9-year-old son approached me with tears in his eyes.

“What is it?” I said nervously, my eyes scanning his body for bruises or bumps. Initially, he refused to answer and continued to wrap his tiny arms tighter around my torso.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” I coaxed, “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

Finally, he succumbed. “It’s cello,” he admitted, “I don’t want to take it anymore.”

My eldest son, who has the vocabulary and sensibilities of a 40-year-old, refers to me by my first name and reads reference books for pleasure. He breezes through the advanced placement classes we enrolled him in two years ago, politely converses with older relatives, and possesses a sense of patience with small children so profound, we’ve lately taken to calling him “the baby whisperer.”

“There’s something about him,” more than one grandmother has told me, “I really feel a strong connection with him.”

In some ways, he reminds me of myself at that age, especially when I see him interacting with adults or displaying a soft layer of sensitivity and empathy that one rarely sees in children his age. He has a strong need to relate to others and develop a rapport with everyone he meets. Sometimes his intelligence, coupled with his keen communicative abilities, allows him the luxury of capably avoiding or abandoning situations that may require more intensive exertion on his part.

“You want to quit cello now?” I asked, “Look, you at least need to finish out the year.”

He shook his head. “I just don’t have the time to commit to it. It’s just too stressful for me right now.”

I couldn’t help smiling at these decidedly adult words coming out of the mouth of my diminutive son, who is routinely mistaken for a first-grader due to his small stature and frame.

“You are supposed to practice 10 minutes a day,” I said, “That’s not so much, especially when I see you spending more than twice that on a video game.”

“But, it’s really hard. And, I haven’t been practicing enough,” he whimpered, his eyes filling up again, “And, now it’s too late to catch up and the teacher is going to yell at me when he finds out I wasn’t really telling the truth about how much I’ve been practicing, and…”

The whole web of deceit spun out from his lips, as he related how he had lied on the practice sheets the teacher handed out. I was very familiar with these sheets, which were designed to compel children to track the minutes each day they spend on their instruments, and I signed off on them regularly with the somewhat vague knowledge that I was perpetuating a deception, as I was fairly aware the 70 minutes he professed to playing on a weekly basis was less of an exaggeration and more of a blatant lie.

These last several weeks of increasing subterfuge had snowballed into a critical situation for my son. The lack of practice was excruciatingly obvious as he dragged his bow painfully across the strings to emit a sound not unlike the rusty creaking of an ancient tomb door. I had been wincing in the other room listening to it right before he had first approached me crying. The cello, my son had obviously decided, was to be categorized in his head as “things that don’t come easily” and rather than choosing determination and hard work, he was desperately trying to convince me to let him ditch it. By removing this current blemish of failure, he could again return to his accustomed reputation of perfection.

The simplicity of the decision he had made—never again return to cello class—to solve this problem was as satisfying and sensible to him as it was maddening to me. Not that I could blame him: He got it from me.

Obviously, I am far from perfect, but much of my life has been carefully constructed to avoid inadvertently revealing my analytic inefficiencies. Like many bright children, I became accustomed to being called smart. And, it was only when I excelled at something that I received that praise. If I couldn’t excel, then I didn’t earn the approval. If someone wasn’t praising me, then I felt criticized. And, if I didn’t feel smart, well then, I guess I felt lacking or deficient. And, certainly, that was one of the worst feelings in the world.

Scholastic and academic prowess had always been paramount in my house. No one cared whether you made the team (or even went out for it), but bringing home a less than perfect test score prompted the inquiry, “What happened to the other two points?” My father’s aggressively well-read intellectualism and broad grasp of politics, history, and social culture was intimidating but inspiring, and I craved his praise, which seemed to be granted on occasions few and far between.

The thick aroma of mildew that sometimes hung heavily in the air of my father’s alcoved office amid the warped wooden shelves that held countless quantities of yellowing books was the smell of intelligence. Even so, my sisters and I learned quickly not to ask my father for help with schoolwork. Instead of answers, you got a stack of dusty, ancient tomes, too voluminous to read and too heavy to carry back up to your room.

As a result of my perceived pressure to stay perfect on my own, I carefully avoided pursuits I felt outside my range of proficiency. I never pushed myself, never set my sights high on the horizon, never took failure as a learning experience, but only as a warning to remove something from my purview. My mother was only too happy to help me in this regard. I was given free rein to quit any activity that made me feel incompetent or frustrated. As a young woman reflecting on my mother’s encouragement and sometimes even blatant suggestion that I give up on endeavors I found more difficult, I remember feeling angry that she didn’t push me to work harder, but today, as the mother of two young boys who would do almost anything to stop their pain or suffering, be it a broken leg or a hangnail, I find myself better able to appreciate her choices, even as I struggle to make different ones.

There is no question the value my father placed on scholarly achievements has been reflected back into my own parenting with my oldest son. It doesn’t bother me that he barely knows the rules of most sports games and has the slight and petite physical build of a spectator. The ease with which I watch him undertake most academic subject matters gives me a thrill. When his acceptance into the advanced placement program seemed in jeopardy, preparing an appeal on his behalf became a critical mission for me. I enjoy boasting about his scholastic efforts to friends and family, and although I try to abide by the current educational trend of avoiding the term “smart” in favor of “motivated” or “determined,” I have been guilty of letting the “s” word slip out here and there. Perhaps the pride that I take in his accomplishments is a manifestation of the memories I harbor of my own—the strong need to outshine and out-succeed, or quit trying.

As he stood before me, his red, tear-tinged eyes filled with anxiety and fear, I wondered whether he was more concerned about being caught in an embarrassing, lingering lie or if the pressure of needing to feel perfect was weighing heavily upon his tiny shoulders. Had I contributed to his angst? Had I laid the groundwork for a redux of qualities that I recognize in myself and strive to surpass?

For a moment, like my mother before me, I was possessed with the overwhelming need to save him from this cello-induced catastrophe. Call his teacher and explain why he must be excused for the rest of the year. Maybe I could blame it on finances, (“I’m sorry, we just can’t afford the $12 a month to rent it anymore”) or the psychological stress of too many after-school activities, or even carpel tunnel syndrome. Whatever it took to remove this worrisome burden from the brow of my fragile first-born baby.

Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “Cello is not stressful. Not practicing and lying about it seems to be extremely stressful, however. Wouldn’t you agree?”

He nodded emphatically.

“I will write a note to your teacher to explain that you have fallen a little behind and see if there is a way to get extra help. In the meantime, how about we both agree to remind each other about you practicing every day? Because I know you don’t want to go through this again, right?”

While I was not surprised by the initial enthusiasm that went into cello practice over the next several days, I was slightly bemused when it continued. A week later, on a night that bedtime loomed and the cello had not yet been played, I suggested he take the day off.

“You’ve been really good.  You can skip it one day,” I assured him.

He shook his head and picked up his bow. “I won’t get better if I don’t practice,” he said, shrugging.

And that, really sounded nothing like me.

Rachael Koenig is a writer and humorist deriving most of her inspiration from her two sons, aged 9 and 4, and step-daughter, aged 12. Her site Maxisms contains personal stories and a collection of precocious, snarky, and hilarious conversations between herself and her children.

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