Perfectionism is a trait where our children hate to fail and thus avoid the possibility of failure at all costs.
In terms of teaching our children Chinese, it can manifest in aspects of applying the Chinese language in their lives, be it listening/comprehension, speaking, reading, or writing. For many children, unless they can understand, say, read or write Chinese perfectly, they might not want to try it at all.
Is it any wonder though?
The unique struggles of learning Chinese in an Anglophone society as a child can be painful on multiple fronts. You may be labeled as foreign or mocked for speaking Chinese and sometimes, even bullied. If you then add the additional pressure you may feel from earnest parents who may show off your language abilities or berate you for your lack of proper pronunciation, children who are perfectionists often choose to clam up instead.
Some examples of how perfectionism can manifest while learning Chinese:
- Not speaking Chinese unless they can say every single word (or know what word to say) accurately
- Not wanting to write Chinese characters because the words look ugly or they can’t remember how to write it
- Not reading a story or sentence because they don’t recognize one character
- Not watching a movie because they can’t understand every single word being said
Instead of considering our children as just being stubborn or willfully disobedient, we should try to understand them as being anxious and avoiding to look foolish and stupid. After all, those are relatable feelings that few people enjoy experiencing them.
How then can we help our children with their fear of failure?
Use Your Own Mistakes and Struggles as Examples
When children see older children and even adults make mistakes, they are comforted with the knowledge that no person is perfect. While these don’t have to be language specific, it can definitely help for them to see adults pronounce Chinese words incorrectly, write words in an ugly manner, or even look up vocabulary.
Such mistakes in Chinese are easily made by parents who are not fluent in Chinese. For parents who may struggle with English, it can be seen as different yet similar situations. Given enough examples, children can see that language is very forgiving and that part of improving is to say or write the “wrong” thing and ask for the “right” thing.
The Know-How of Practicing
Many children don’t like to practice because they think they have to get it right on the first try. But that’s not what practice is for. Remind your child that practicing is for the purpose of IMPROVING.
Using temporary materials is a good way to encourage practicing by getting used to doing things “wrong” until they get it “right”.
Use pencils instead of pens, and make erasers easy to access.
Use salt or sand trays for learning stroke order or how to write so children can see just how temporary their mistakes are.
Resist the urge to make a big deal out of any mistakes.
If your child can’t remember how to write a character, write it for them elsewhere for them to copy and then move on. Don’t force them to write it 20 times in a row or to re-write that character until you think it looks pretty enough.
If your child can’t remember one character as they read, just tell them the character and move on.
If they can’t understand the meaning of a phrase or a show, explain it to them and move on.
Refrain from breaking out the flashcards or having them repeat the explanations.
Imagine if every time you made a mistake, all productivity halted and then you had to figure out how to fix the mistake quickly and well enough to please someone else! What a pain! Who would dare try anything?
The more our kids realise that mistakes are minor and don’t stop everything in its tracks, the easier it becomes for them to shake it off and continue.
Focus on the Process Instead of the Product
This may be difficult for many of us parents because we’re a results-oriented society and like to point to concrete things as proof of progress. While the final product is important, it can create a lot of pressure on children who are worried that their product isn’t up to snuff.
Instead, if we focus on how our children can overcome the obstacles in their way, then we can help them be resilient and try new things - even if they may fail (and fail spectacularly) in the process.
For example, if your child doesn’t want to write because they can’t remember how to write certain characters, have them write the characters phonetically or as best they can instead. They can always go back and ask for help or use a dictionary to fill in those characters afterwards.
If they don’t want to write because they think their characters are ugly, teach them the proper stroke order. Show them some basics on how different components fit together in harmony.
Explain to them that the reason you’re teaching them these processes is to help them bypass their stopping points - rather than to punish them.
Remind your child that part of learning is to ask questions. There is no shame in saying, “I don’t understand. Please tell me in a different way.”
This way, we equip our children how to learn and find solutions - a far more useful skill than having the right answers (because our knowledge is finite whereas problem solving can be infinitely adapted).
Explain Your Expectations and Be Consistent
Often, we forget that children can’t read our minds and may erroneously assume we want more from them than we actually expect. State clearly what you expect from a particular scenario and mean it.
In a conversation, for example, you could tell your child that you expect them to use English for words they don’t know in Chinese.
When comprehending materials slightly above their abilities, you can reassure your child that you expect them to ask you about concepts, phrases, or words they can’t read or understand.
It’s imperative that you remain consistent with your expectations. If your child realizes that you don’t actually mean it, or perhaps even expect near perfection, they will revert back to clamming up and not trying.
Most importantly, however, is that as a parent, we must also give ourselves grace. It’s our first time teaching our children Chinese (and if we have more than one child, it’s good to remember that every child is different). The more we accept our own imperfections and model it for our children, the more they will believe us.