My seven year old child is a perfectionist and I believe it holds her back. She is so afraid of making a mistake or "failing" that she is afraid to put herself out there. She is similarly afraid to be the center of attention, thereby, never really trying to win the ball in sporting events, giving it her all in performance-arts related activities, or even meeting her potential academically (she selects really easy books to read, for example). How can I help her realize that mistakes are a part of life and help her realize her full potential?
I spent three years teaching kids that carry a "gifted" label and a label attached to a variety of learning disorders. Almost every one of them struggled with perfectionistic tendencies that became disabling at times - it is an innate tendency in some kids. My husband and I, have needed to be very careful about with our own (currently six-year-old) daughter for the same reasons you list above. There are a few things parents can do that can worsen the tendency when it already exists, create a tendency toward perfectionism where one did not exist before, OR conversely, help their kids try and fail with grace at least some of the time.
You say your child is a perfectionist and indicate that she is praise averse when you say she doesn't like being the center of attention. These are both keys in understanding how to help your child (as best you can) learn to move forward. What has worked for us with our little one, and what I have seen work with countless students with perfectionistic tendencies.
Create an Environment Focused on Effort
Make sure that you are focused on her efforts and "journey" as opposed to her accomplishments. The most obvious way to do this is first to ask the question, "did you do your best?" If she wins and/or has a great success at something, ask, "did you do your best?" If she can honestly say she did, celebrate with her. If she says no, say, "why not?" Do the same if she fails at something. "Did you do your best?" "Yes" - well, lets have your favorite pizza for dinner then." I've seen this referred to as a "growth" attitude.
Other, less obvious ways to do this include:
Instead of praising your child for her accomplishments, ask her how she feels about them, "what do you think about your soccer team's win today?" Likewise, if she has had a failure, "What do you think about what happened today?" If she answers, "I did my best, but I don't know what happened" she is inviting constructive feedback from you. If she already knows what went wrong, let her make the appropriate adjustments - or at least lead the conversation
Instead of praising or critiquing your child for something she did, simply notice it non-evaluatively, "I noticed you controlled the ball five times today during the game." If she feels that was an accomplishment, she'll feel good about your statement. On the other hand, if she feels she could have done better, she might say, "yeah I know, I held back." Now you know how SHE feels about it and can respond accordingly.
When critique is required (because sometimes it just is) try to offer her the chance to come up with the alternative. State what the problem is, "It really bothers me when the house is a mess." What you need her to do starting with "I," "Therefore, I need you to keep the house a little cleaner." Then, invite her to be part of the solution, "How can we work on this together?"
Make Sure She Has Examples of Success After Failure
"Meet the Robinson's" and its message of "Keep Moving Forward" is a great one. We also refer to the "Up From the Ashes" song and scene from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" which also shows an inventor failing AND succeeding. How many times did Babe Ruth strike out versus his Home Runs? Apparently Einstein was horrid in elementary school. Thomas Edison tried TONS of other options before coming up with just the right filament for the light bulb, or what about Alexander Flemming and his chance discovery of Penicillium? The example of a quote from Michael Jordon is PERFECT for this.
Share your most embarrassing moment with her - couched with something good that came out of it - a lesson learned, a friend made . . . Do the same with all the failures you've had and can share with her in this light (over time, not one sitting).
She didn't always know how to use the potty, she couldn't always dress herself/ button buttons etc. She had to practice first. Even if you have to dig deep, make sure she knows she has been through this before.
Offer her Chances to Fail in Private
Give her challenges at home YOU know she can handle, but she isn't totally sure about. Offer a book she is going to think is a little too tough and say, "but I really think you'll like this story. What if we read it together like in the old days? You read it to me and if you get stuck you can ask for my help?" (Totally did this EXACTLY like this with my own daughter to get her to try reading chapter books - NOW Its hard to find books fast enough!) Then, if something IS a challenge just support her through it. At the end ask, "Did you do your best? and How did that feel?"
When Failures Occur, Treat them as A Learning Opportunity
Seriously, when she fails at something - celebrate it! "Woohoo, a chance to learn something - okay what is it, what did you learn, or what did we learn from this one?" Don't be so over-the top that it feels cheesy or she'll feel patronized, but genuinely empathize with her disappointment, embarrassment, whatever and then say, "But you know, the good news is, I BET there is something to be learned here - that's the way the greatest scientists see it anyway."
Teach and Model Positive Self Talk
Let her see you make mistakes and respond to them the way you wish she would respond to hers: "Oh my gosh! What a mistake I made! Ah well, everyone does. I'm going to just keep moving forward" or, "I won't let it get me down" or, "Good thing I know mistakes are often a learning opportunity. what can I learn from this?"
Let her see you try something new and fail: "Oh, singing is So hard - my voice cracked all through my half hour lesson today. Ah well, I know if I keep practicing, I'll get it"
It will take time, but, overtime, these techniques along with just quality attention and time together will make a difference to her. She may still struggle with perfectionism. It might still be hard for her to stand out, but it is a lot less likely to cripple her into doing nothing because of the fear of not doing it perfectly.
I think that to a degree this is due to temperament: some kids love to be the center of attention and fool around, and others don't. Related (in my mind anyway) is how willing kids are to try new things and fail. Then there's the question of pride and being worried about being deemed a failure by their peers.
My son has a hard time sticking to things that he is not incredibly interested in or has a natural aptitude for. He'll try something, and if it doesn't go well, he'll get angry, sulky and will not easily try it again - mostly due to the gap between his abilities and where he wants to be. If it's something he doesn't really need to know or be able to do we'll let it go, but if, like reading, it is something important we've been doing the following:
This is unfortunately not a one time conversation, but over time, as he has gotten better, they've become less frequent.
Our youngest daughter is a perfectionist who would only attempt things when she knew she could flawlessly accomplish it. She would have her brothers take her turn at video games and watch what they did. To a large extent, this perfectionism is a large part of her make-up and to try to completely alter it would be like trying to prune a full grown redwood tree into a bonsai pot. We were able to help her imagine what the worst thing that would happen if she tried something she hadn't yet mastered, and asked if she could live with that happening. She has become better and better at recognizing when to extend herself. That was helpful as was being sensitive when to challenge and when to support.
A great video to watch, which is fairly recent, is the Honda video "Failure: the secret to success": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiaPNlR5A4I
Our family is a theater family of actors. Not surprisingly, our daughter chose to tech, which she did at regional theater, high school, and college. When she was asked to be in a play at college (heavily cajoled by friends), she did what I thought impossible. Without any acting training, she pulled off accent, arc of character, and connection with other actors on stage. She was fantastic. She has since earned a chemistry Phd. As parents we helped form her as she formed herself.
There is really no specific answer, since a parent's response is very situational. You'll know when to challenge your kid for behavior outside their comfort level and when to support.
We teach our kids how to play stringed instruments with the Suzuki method, and I think the best parenting book I've ever read was by a Suzuki teacher who's also a child psychologist.
One of the core insights in the book is that with practice, even complex skills become easier. When things are easier, they are more rewarding.
It has been a tremendous challenge to convince our kids in many areas (not just music) that learning things that seem hard and failure-prone (like riding a bike) will happen and they will become easy and fun. But once they get that principle it's awesome. Our littlest is the most gung ho about new things because he's seen his older siblings do it. If yours is an only or oldest child, it's okay if it takes a while.
So the only practical advice I have is that good education proceeds in small steps. Isolate one little skill to challenge her on, and find a way to motivate her to practice until she can succeed. Learning is actually pretty addictive if there's the right mixture of ease and challenge (this is what makes many video games irresistable to some).
Be patient and try to have fun!
According to one school of child psychology, how you praise your children has an enormous effect on how hard they try. So one possibility is that you should simply praise her for over reaching herself... praise her for choosing a harder book, for example, and don't offer any praise for finishing an easy book. Often times, kids who are told that they are good at something don't want to push themselves and risk not being praised or even being chastised for failure. So it's important not to praise success, but instead to praise effort.
Some further reading on this topic.
I don't know if it will help, but I like the following quote from the greatest basketball player of all time: