Age 5 (and 6) is extremely concerned with perfection. It’s a normal developmental phase.
(Yes, this might also mean that your 4 year old or 4.5 year old or 7 year old are like this. I am describing the peak age at which this phase is typically, generalised across a population, at its most intense.)
Many adults will try to react to perfectionism by doing their best to squash it. They don’t think what they’re doing is squashing, they think it’s encouraging! After all, if the adult themself struggles with perfectionism, or knows people who do, then they can see how damaging of a burden it is to carry for adults.
So if a 5-6yo child gets angry at a drawing and yells, “I didn’t do it right!!”, the adult will tell them something like, “We all make mistakes” or “It looks beautiful to me!” or “You can’t even tell” or “What do you mean, this looks great!”
And if a 5-6yo child tries to learn a new skill—maybe a sport or an activity or a motor skill—and gets frustrated and stomps and screams “I hate this, I can’t learn this, I’m doing it all wrong!” then the adult will tell them something like “But it takes time to learn” and “You have to persevere” and “You were really close” and “You did just fine!”
Imagine if you wrote an important business email, or maybe wrote out your resume, and sent it or submitted it. Then later, when telling your friend or loved one about it, you pulled up the email or resume to show them, and realized it had like five massive typos right in the middle of it.
And they just kept reassuring you “it’s fine, it’s OK to make a mistake, you still did a great job making this email.”
But all you can see is the typos. And you wonder how it will affect what *might have been*… if you had only been able to get it perfectly the way it was in your mind.
Maybe it does impact what happens as a result of the email/submission, maybe it doesn’t, but…it still feels important to you either way and you might not want that feeling to be minimized.
The harder an adult pushes back on this, the harder the adult is saying, “No, the thing you’re concerned about is not actually important in life. No, Goodness and Rightness and Perfection are not actually important. No, this thing you’re putting energy into and caring passionately about doesn’t actually matter.”
That’s not what the adult means to be saying. What the adult means to be saying might be more like, “I don’t expect perfection from you! You’re still just a little guy! It’s okay with me if you don’t spell this right, draw this ‘right’, I don’t even have a standard for ‘rightness’ on this in my head. You’re just playing! You’re just learning! It’s okay! I don’t expect the world from you,” but that’s not what the child is hearing.
5-6 is also a peaking time period of a big big shift, where children have typically learned or are typically learning that their words can be just as powerful as their actions. When they’re feeling disappointed or angry they may have begun to reach for the most powerful words that they know, instead of stomping, hitting, throwing, kicking, etc. They use words full of hyperbole and huge extremes. They use words that are as “taboo” and “shocking” as they can imagine. Depending on what they’ve been exposed to, that might include swear words, or “kid swear” words, or shocking themes like death and destruction. “This is the worst ever, I’m going to throw it in the Dumpster, I’m going to set it on fire, I’m going to cut it up with a knife into little pieces,” etc.
And then of course, the harder the adult pushes back on *that*, the more the child continues to feel unheard and misunderstood.
What kind of reply can you offer instead?
What if you just agree with them?
Or just reflect what they’re saying back to them?
Or just empathize with how frustrating it would be to be old enough to imagine incredibly cool things like…whole entire movies, and scenery, and people in all their complexity, and fantasy scenes, and and and…and only be able to make your hands make, like, basic shapes and lines? Or to be old enough to have maybe learned some of the basics of reading but not be able to use your hands and your brain to produce whole stories for you to read back later? Or to be old enough to have maybe learned about incredibly cool movements people make with their bodies and sports people participate in and hobbies people have yet have only lived a short amount of time on the earth and not enough time to master ANYTHING yet?
That is frustrating!
child: it’s not right!!!
you: oh man!! That’s so disappointing! (matching their level of energy about it)
child: it never turns out right, I hate it (crumpling the paper, throwing it away)
you: ughhh I know it’s so disappointing when you had an idea in your head and it didn’t come out that way
child: I’m never drawing again
you: we totally don’t have to draw right now. Do you want to do something else? Do you want to just cuddle and feel mad?
child: I always make a mistake when I draw.
you: it feels like it never comes out of your hands like it is in your brain, huh? I bet that’s so frustrating.
As one final note…I’m not suggesting that you never ever give any kind of messaging about it being okay to make mistakes. I have the book “Beautiful Oops” in my OT room and it’s about how a blotch or a tear or an unexpected mistake on a paper can be turned into its own art, I’m not saying things like that are terrible unhelpful ideas. But like everything else with emotions, they aren’t helpful in the moment when somebody’s emotions are already flooded. Then is not the time to pull out the “everybody makes mistakes” line.
Instead…model coping with your own mistakes. Talk your process out loud. “Ah shoot. I forgot to bring the bag with me today. Now I’m going to have to figure out how to fix this mistake. I’ll drop you off at school and then go back for it.” “Whoops, I was writing the letter u and it came out looking more like a v. That’s okay. I can erase it.” “I spilled this on my shirt. I’m going to do the best I can to get it out with soap but it might not. That’s frustrating, but I know it was just a mistake.” Etc, etc.
It’s a phase. It’s a developmental phase. It’s normal and typical and doesn’t say anything about their long-term perseverance and they won’t learn anything from you trying to enforce your values on them about it. They will learn from experience. They will learn from time and maturity. And they will learn from you modeling it for them.