Make a Mess

I received an email from a mom whose daughter struggles with perfectionism and anxiety (maybe spectrum issues too). She writes:

“When my little girl gets stuck, she gets stuuuuuuck. Because she continues to inadvertently invert the letter S, the entire page of copywork is “ruined”…and so is the rest of the day.”

Do you have a child like that? Won’t write unless every word is perfectly spelled or masterfully handwritten? If he detects a single mistake, he gives up or throws a tantrum or cries?

Maybe you have a daughter who is so careful, that she writes really slowly and loses track of what she was trying to say and so wilts into tears because she finds writing so tedious, so laborious, so hard.

What do we do?

Often, in the face of reading or writing failure, we homeschool parents scour the Internet, badger our friends, and consult specialists for a better method to ensure successful results. We want to protect our children from feeling like failures so we try to find a way to help them never fail—to get the right spellings every time, or to guarantee that they never forget which way the “b” goes.

In other words, we inadvertently reinforce the perfectionism!

When those programs don’t work (since no child or adult can achieve perfect writing every time they write), we change our story and tell our kids that it’s okay to make mistakes. But by then, our sweet children have internalized the perfectionist standard and made it their own. They won’t be okay while mistakes are on their papers, no matter what you say to them.

Conversations about progress and growth rarely impact kids. They need concrete experiences to change how they see reality.

So my advice to the mom of the girl of the backwards ‘s’? This is what I wrote to her. Maybe it will help you too.

“So do a whole page of backwards s’s. Deliberately have your daughter make big mistakes. Tell her you want a whole page where nothing is right—where she tries to trick you with her outrageous spellings and handwriting gaffes. Ask her to see how many letters she can do upside down or backwards. PLAY with writing. Take away the zero sum game. Help her to get into play.”

There are all kinds of ways to get out of the perfectionist rut, and trying harder to be perfect isn’t one of them. See if any of these will help you and your stressed out kids.

  • How about using alphabet tiles to spell rather than handwriting? What if you play a game? You trade turns picking letter tiles: you pick “C” and she picks “A” and you pick “T” and then say the word. Then…
  • What if you make words that don’t work? “C” followed by a “T” followed by a “W” followed by a “U.” Try to pronounce it. Why doesn’t it work? What is the mouth doing? Create nonsense words that can be pronounced and those that can’t. What’s the difference? Talk about it, while pushing tiles around.
  • For writing: wrinkle the page. Scrunch it up into a ball, smooth it out. Now do copywork or freewriting.
  • Use the back side of a flyer for writing. (Unconscious message: can’t be perfect – paper is already not perfect.)
  • Write with markers. Or paintbrushes. Or crayons.
  • Make an entirely writing-unrelated mess before writing. Get really dirty (play in the mud), or make muffins and let your hands messy. Then write.
  • Write about messes. Tell your kids they have to make the writing messy, too. Put out a variety of pens and highlighters. Write with them and show them the mess you are making in copywork or freewriting. Make it a weekly writing practice for a bit.
  • Crowd the table with so much stuff, there’s nowhere to write. Tell your kids they have to find some hidey hole place in the house to write (a cramped tight space).
  • Write in the dark. Turn out the lights and write on the page without seeing your handwriting.
  • Write really really tiny. Scrunch it all down. Now write on the next several lines, REALLY REALLY BIG! Take up several lines with each letter.

Are you getting the idea? Stop feeding perfectionism. Play. Do all of these alongside your kids. You write. You make mistakes. You make a big sanctioned mess along with your kids. Laugh at your mistakes!

Be more exploratory and less focused on ‘right’ and ‘wrong.” Help your kids to play with phonetics and handwriting, rather than helping them “get them right” all the time.

There’s obviously room for growing and learning correct spellings. Original writing is not that time. Ever. Original writing is about thought, content, ideas—dictated to a parent who writes them down, or handwritten in whatever way seems right to the child in the moment. As that child ages and grows in mechanics using someone else’s writing, some of those skills will show up in original writing.

The worst thing you can do is expect mastery of mechanics and spelling in original writing. That requirement erases content like acetone on a painted nail. Who can possibly have fun thinking thoughts if worried about which direction the letter ‘s’ goes? Seriously!

If your child is stressed by copywork and its demand for accuracy and perfection, why can’t you take those shackles off for a month? How about subverting that expectation with freedom to explore? Freedom to try different handwritings? Can you slope your alphabet the other way? Can you make it big, small, really squiggly, really straight?

I remember when I was getting married that I tried 50 different signatures to find the one I liked best. Why can’t our kids try 10 different handwriting styles and 10 different spellings and 10 different sizes for their work?

Let it all go. Declare this month as “getting it all wrong on purpose” month and then really go for it. Push the boundaries and break the rules. Make messes on paper. Play with handwriting. Open the space for creativity, not just accuracy.

If you can minister in the opposite spirit, if you can let yourself go, your kids may have a chance to find their internal freedom and permission-giver as well. They will discover that they are free—that nothing existentially bad happens to them when they explore language in writing. That’s when learning can happen. That’s when breakthroughs can occur.

All the teaching you want to do is possible when your children know the space is emotionally safe for risk-taking.

2 Responses to “Make a Mess”

  1. How timely is this? Primo has been having perfectionist meltdowns this week. The topics have been everything under the sun, but you hit the “cure” on the head… fun! This applies in so many ways; I’ll be trying some of these tips in both writing and other topics. Who knows, I may even try similar techniques on the engineers at work…it is okay to let the magic smoke out of the box… just keep in in the budget 😉

    So funny how these types of blogs show up when you need them most.


  2. Julie Bogart says:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful comment! Loved it.