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to err is human

July 16, 2010

Scene: Harriet’s kitchen. Harriet is packing AJ’s lunch while Harriet and AJ discuss the book AJ has been reading, Mike Lupica’s heat, in preparation for a quiz he has to take next week.

AJ: So the main characters live in the ball park.

Harriet: They live in the ball park? Where do they live? Why don’t they have a place to live?

AJ: I don’t know. In the basement I think.

Harriet: That seems like pretty important information that the author would include. Are you sure you didn’t miss it?

AJ: I’m sure. It just says that they live in the shadow of the ball park.

Harriet: Oh, I see. That’s an expression. Have you ever heard that someone lives in the shadow of somewhere before?

AJ: (looking crestfallen at making a mistake) No.

Harriet: It means they live really nearby — like somewhere close enough that the sun can cast a shadow of the ballpark on them.

AJ: I hate myself.

Harriet: Don’t hate yourself. There’s no reason you should have known that.

AJ: Yes I should have.

Harriet: But now you do.

AJ: I still hate myself.

* * * * *

Perfectionism is probably the trait I find most challenging in AJ. He does not permit himself to make any mistakes in front of anyone, period. And when he does make a mistake, he is miserable about it. Never mind that there’s no particular reason why he should know the expression “in the shadow of.” He finds expressions in general frustrating, as they seem designed to exclude him from somewhere he wants to be and they tend to defy a systematic approach to learning them. There are so many from so many unrelated sources.

Fortunately, he recovers fairly quickly. He’s moved on to something else. But he’s suspicious of the book now, of his ability to understand it. It’s very hard to watch.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2010 7:50 pm

    I am so sorry to see that. Because I know that a similar trait in me held me back many times. And I know that nothing anyone could say would divert me from the idea that I could. not. be. perfect.

    I don’t know where I got that idea. And I don’t know what anyone could have done to make me think otherwise. I know people tried…

  2. July 17, 2010 8:12 am

    I try to talk about this with my son–the more perfectionist of my two children–in terms of context. He sometimes asks a question about a phrase like that out of context and I’ve once or twice given him the wrong answer because he didn’t give me the full context, like the time the kids asked about the word “faggot” and were reading LOTR. I gave them a 5-min speech about how they shouldn’t use that word, and then they asked “but why were they carrying them up the hill?”

  3. LBC permalink
    July 20, 2010 8:46 pm

    Because my son has Asperger Syndrome we have to work on this stuff regularly. Perfectionism is common in the Asperger population, as is difficulty understanding expressions and idioms (there’s even a book: An Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions). Teaching Asperger kids to make mistakes (or try when it’s hard, or ask for help when they don’t know the answer) is key to their social and scholastic development. Even though your son doesn’t have AS, it might help to try some of the tricks used with AS kids. One thing they recommend is to set up a reward chart of some sort, with points given for different tasks. Something like: 3 points for making a mistake and correcting it w/o getting upset, 2 points for doing it right, and 1 point for trying and getting frustrated/upset. The point is to reward the process and not the outcome. Points are given for how he approaches the task, not for doing it right or wrong. After he earns a certain amount of points, he gets some kind of prize. Give him an incentive to boldly make mistakes as a way to learn new things. The more you do it, the easier it gets. The smartest people I know are the people who ask a lot of questions. I wish I had learned this when I was a kid!

  4. July 20, 2010 9:10 pm

    That’s a wonderful suggestion, LBC. I didn’t know about perfectionism and Asperger’s, although it makes sense to me with what little I do know about Asperger’s. Since I posted this, we have started playing a quiz game — AJ loves quiz games — the topics and we make up the questions which get harder as he moves through each topic. But the rule is that he has to answer every question, whether he knows the answer or not. He really struggled with it at first, but he likes the game so he’s getting better at answering things he doesn’t know. But I like the idea of incentives and think that may be very effective with him.

  5. LBC permalink
    July 21, 2010 10:36 am

    This brings up another thing I just learned: quiz games where the questions start out very easy and gradually increase in difficulty. The child will (supposedly!) gain momentum tackling the easy questions and therefore be more confident when trying his hand at the harder ones. You can make this into a game, where the mistakes are part of the fun. Use something goofy, like a rubber chicken, as part of the game, and toss it to him when he makes a mistake on a question. Laugh, giggle, hahaha, then look up the correct answer (or whatever).

    My son is gifted and has Asperger Syndrome, so we deal with the issues of both. Always something wacky going on over here.

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