My realisation that insisting on perfection may have impaired learning and hindered academic confidence.
“Mom, can you come and sit with me?” I chased away an initial groan of reluctance and the temptation to dismiss her request with a throwaway remark that she really did not need me and she was more than capable of doing her work on her own. Instead, I placed my book down, mustered my most positive, lighthearted voice and chirped “Sure! I’m coming.”
I pulled up a chair right next to her, in front of our shared desktop computer. She had just logged onto a site for online maths. I took a deep breath and checked myself. For the next few minutes, I would have to sit on my words, modulate my breathing, maintain neutral body language and put all mental judgement aside. I was ready for this personal challenge!
Every few minutes, she looked to me for affirmation or asked my opinion of her answer. Each time I smiled gently. In my heart, an inner voice kept chanting a mantra of encouragement “You can do it. Believe in yourself. Trust in yourself.” Outwardly, I would say, “How do you feel? If you feel it is correct, then it is.” Deliberately replacing the word “think” with “feel” because there was no reason for her to doubt her own capability. After a long while, she stopped asking. I kept up my chanting the mantra, silently, “You can do it. Believe in yourself. Trust in yourself.”
All those minutes I sat next to her, my heart ached. In my spirit, I felt deep remorse. I will find the right time to apologise. I want to explain, at the time, I truly believed I was doing the right thing. I want to say sorry for scrubbing away her squiggly-formed numbers and insisting that she re-write them perfectly. I want to say sorry for screaming in frustration whenever she forgot her multiplication tables. I want to say sorry for the afternoon, three years ago, when I grabbed her near completed maths worksheets, scrunched them up, like you would a piece of unworthy recycled paper and yelled, “If you are not going to do it properly, exactly how I have taught you, then just forget it!” I can still see her face as if she was right in front of me – paused in absolute horror, too afraid to cry, grieving for her effort, now all destroyed and thrown into the bin.
Our mild mannered child would never anger or rebel when faced with such tyranny. I did not realise, she had her own approach to processing arithmetic and I would insist on one model answer and working method. Not permitting any exploration of alternative reasoning, even if it arrived at the correct answer. I did not believe in her. I did not trust in her. Had I unconsciously encouraged perfectionism, which only served to heighten her anxiety and insecurity?
Sitting right next to her this evening, I observed. She employed her own method. I tuned into her anxiety and self-doubt. It was intense. During those seconds before she chose to click the “Check Answer” button she would hesitate with trepidation. Immense relief would wash over her on seeing the green tick and on hearing the bell to signal that it was correct. And slowly afterwards, only very gradually, would she allow herself to celebrate with a sense of achievement. Her priceless smile was fleeting; disappearing as soon as she began reading the next question.
Success in maths is as much about mental ability as it is about mathematical confidence. It is now time for her to shed that learnt perfectionism which appears to hinder personal and academic growth. She is resilient when I do not interfere. In my silence, she tries. In her practice, she is rediscovering her own strengths. My mantra is a reminder to myself to believe and trust in my own child. My aspiration is for her to strive for knowledge and understanding, rather than wait to be led and presented with a perfect solution.