Perfectionism in a Loud World

Recently, I was clearing out a giant box of old papers and had a blast reading my old report cards. After having a child, my perspective on teachers and public education has changed a whole lot, and it was fun to read between the lines on some of their comments. Most of them said the same thing: that I was diligent, polite, worked hard, and wasn’t satisfied with B’s on my report card. I was an over-achiever, in both sports and academics. I was frequently more concerned than I should have been about the grade I’d earn, rather than the experience I was having. A few teachers, especially in high school, commented that I had a tendency for dramatics, and that I could be surly and sullen if my expectations weren’t met.

So basically nothing has changed.

I got thinking about how Kale is not a lot different than me. And when I see the anxiety welling up in him because he wasn’t as perfect as he thought he should be, I can relate. His particular brand of anxiety seems much worse if he’s in a loud space. He gets a bit overwhelmed, will complain his ears hurt, will ask to find a quieter place. We manage okay for the most part as he’s learned to cover his ears when the volume spikes up, he’s learned to leave a room if it’s too loud. So, he loves Giants’ hockey games, but when they blast that ferry horn after a goal, he covers his ears.  At school, they have earmuffs for the kids with sensitive ears, and he’s learned to just go get those earmuffs if the class is too loud. His anxiety calms then, and the perfectionism is less severe, and things are good.

After my trip down my own Anxiety-Filled Memory Boulevard,  I got thinking about two recent events.

Story the first:

For Remembrance Day this year, the kids in Kale’s class worked on a little sheet, pre-printed with space for them to fill in about what peace meant to them and then draw a picture to go with it. I found out much later that Kale’s teacher had described peace as the thing that made you feel calm and peaceful, rather than going in depth into war versus peace. I guess in grade 1/2 war is a pretty scary concept that not all kids can wrap their heads around. Knowing that now, I feel like I overreacted, but at the time, I was disappointed. Kale’s worksheet was…. well, I think he totally phoned it in.


I get that he was doing this under the instructions of things that made him happy, calm, and peaceful, but seriously? “Doing fun stuff”? It just didn’t seem like himself.

I reacted pretty negatively to this when he showed me. I admit I was embarrassed about how much the video games were referenced because while I’m liberal about screen time and video games, it’s not all he does and I *do* limit it with rules about earning it. I was also angry that he didn’t seem to try hard. This felt like a less-than-normal effort at school for him, so I asked him about what he was thinking about when he did this. He told me it was hard to think of his answers, because “the classroom was too loud”.

Kale gets the idea of war (thanks, Angry Birds!) and so he also gets that peace is opposite to war. He said he also couldn’t find the right words to describe what he really wanted to say so that it worked with the “Peace is…” starter. So I suggested we re-do it, together, and work through the vocabulary that he wanted to use and take our time to quietly re-do it.


He struggled with “symbolized”. He knew the words “icon” and “symbol” (thanks, iPad!) but could figure out how to say that a poppy was a symbol of peace if the sentence started with “Peace is…”. After an hour of working at this together, of trying to nudge him to discover  the trickier words like “thankful” on his own without giving him the answer, and a few tears and sadness at how hard it was to challenge his brain, he had a lightbulb moment, figured it out, and triumphantly proclaimed “Mom! I did it! I got the right words! I knew them already, I just needed to think quietly!” and OH HOW HE BEAMED.

What started as an awful parenting fail moment where I crabbed at my kid for being lazy, video game-obsessed and ungrateful, ended so triumphantly.

Story the second:

One of the things the grade two kids are working on is storytelling. I love this. I love storytelling (hello, blog), and I love that crafting a good story is a skill they’re working on at this young age. So, their assignment in class was to use a thinking map to come up with the parts of a story, and then write it, using their brainstormed ideas, in sentences. The topic was their favourite vacation, and I knew Kale’s would be Maui. There was lots about Maui that he recalls as the best parts, so I knew he’d have lots of material.

In class, he struggled to be focused, mucking about with his friend. He didn’t get his work done before the end of the day and so his teacher asked if he would take it home to finish off for the next day, and he burst into tears. She brought him outside to me at the bell, and updated me on what had happened. She reiterated he wasn’t in trouble and there was nothing the matter, just to finish up his story so that the next day they could all illustrate their stories together. Kale and I talked on the way home about what had happened.

The classroom was too loud, he said and his friend had the earmuffs he wanted and wouldn’t give them to him. (From what I gather, this particular paid is tighter and so they probably work better to shut out sounds.) We talked that sometimes you wouldn’t always get the earmuffs you wanted, but that any earmuffs could make the loud classroom quiet enough to focus and that it was okay to challenge yourself to focus in a room that wasn’t quite as quiet as you hoped.

When we got home, Kale finished his story in 20 minutes or so, chirped happily to me about the story and the memories from Hawaii and was back on track. He asked to listen to the radio when he was done and danced around the kitchen, pleased with himself.


We live in a really loud world, here in the city. There are ambulances and leaf blowers and cars, and dogs barking and coffee grinders and you name it. It’s not practical to think we will always be able to work in silence for complete focus. Our house is peaceful; we keep lights off unless it is dark, we keep the TV downstairs, we keep the rooms tidy and free from chaos… but it’s still on Kale to learn to calm and quiet his mind to control the anxiety and perfectionism. I’m glad I can empathize here and can help him find balance, but it’s also important to accept and celebrate the type of kid he is. I know first hand that some anxiety-filled perfectionist kids grow up to be pretty awesome people.


6 years ago