Academics frustrating for preschoolers

Q Whenever my 4-year-old son tries something new, he becomes very frustrated if he has any difficulty at all. This happens when practicing numbers, letters or anything else I try to teach him. I tell him that he’s doing fine and will do better with practice, but it’s obviously not sinking in. In general, he’s a perfectionist in the sense that everything must be “just so.” It worries me because we have depression, anxiety and OCD on both sides of the family. I’ve also heard that perfectionism is a characteristic of oldest children. Does that also apply to only children? Could it be a result of the fact that his father and I have been separated for a while now? What can I say to him in order to help him not be so hard on himself?

A I am reminded of Harvey Korman’s most well-known line from the film Blazing Saddles: “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.”

My purposefully obscure point is that you are over-thinking this situation, attributing your son’s performance issues to heredity, separation, being the oldest or only child, and something else tomorrow. The more you think about this, trying to figure out the answer to why he’s perfectionistic, the more you worry. It goes without saying that you need to think straight about this … and you’re not. So, I’ll try to help you.

First, lots of children are perfectionistic. In and of itself, wanting to do things right is a functional trait. Generally, it “levels off” with maturity. It is not a harbinger of depression, debilitating anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. And by the way, while we’re on those topics, no one has ever provided compelling proof that those problems are genetically transmitted. A good number of depressed people, for example, have no family history of depression.

Second, your son’s issues are reason enough to stop teaching him academics. Studies have shown that by the third grade children who learned academics before coming to grade one are indistinguishable from peers of equal ability who did not. Further, he is coming to associate academics with a highly negative experience. This goes a long way toward explaining the finding that the earlier a child learns to read, the less likely it is that he will enjoy reading at age 16.

Studies have also strongly suggested that the average child’s brain — no matter how “smart” the child may be — is not fully ready for symbol-based learning (i.e., letters and numbers) until age 6. That is undoubtedly not the only factor, but it is interesting in that regard to note that when the typical American child was not exposed to academics until first grade, our literacy rate was much, much higher.

My best guess is that your son’s not frustrated and beating himself up because of depression in your family, being an only child, or the fact that you and his father are separated. He’s frustrated because you’re expecting him to do something he’s not developmentally ready to do. Stop teaching academics. Love him and discipline him equally well. Let him enjoy being a 4-year-old.

Contact family psychologist John Rosemond at his websites, or