As we prepare for an unprecedented back-to-school season, let’s see our children for who they truly are and reimagine what it means for them to have a rewarding life.

By Catherine Newman
August 07, 2020
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Illustration by Bijou Karman

It starts early and sticks around. That drumbeat of worry when your baby isn’t in the 99th percentile, when your child quits soccer or piano, when they bring home Bs or Cs. The world seems so competitive, and even if they’re only in elementary school, it’s easy to wonder if they’re on the right track to get into a good college or earn a scholarship. But most kids are average—that’s what average means. So why do we tend to stress when it’s our kids, pushing them to pursue impressive achievements and stand out from the crowd? Several years ago, a survey by the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that the majority of 10,000 teenagers from diverse backgrounds placed more value on aspects of personal success than concern for others—and the authors concluded that young people are likely picking up that “value” from their parents. Is that the message we want to be sending?

This unique historical moment is offering us an opportunity to recalibrate our values and turn this ship around. Among other things, the pandemic and nationwide protests have reminded us of the preciousness of both ordinary life and life itself. During social distancing, our children have longed to hug their grandparents and friends. They’ve exclaimed over the sweetness of a strawberry, gathered up their old puzzles for the little kids next door, and run outside to look at the fireflies. And beyond these small wonders, we’ve had enormous conversations about the world we want to live in, racial justice, and our interconnectedness as human beings.

This is as extraordinary as the ordinary gets. It’s regular life filled with consistent love, intermittent sparkle, and values in practice. And kids will have access to this perfectly imperfect life whether they go to trade school or Stanford or community college, whether they’re plumbers or artists or lawyers. “Your kid has a great chance of living a meaningful and purposeful life at the intersection of what they’re good at, what they love, and what they value,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult. Here are suggestions for how we can help our kids balance—and define—achievement for themselves.

Broaden your ideas about success.

Because our culture overvalues good grades and scores—and the ideal future these are supposed to ensure—we may overvalue them too. Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of Kid Confidence, understands that this narrow vision of achievement often comes from anxiety. “We want a guarantee that our kids will be OK, so we look at measurable outputs like grades and winning this or that prize,” she says. “Of course, if we step back, we’ll realize there are no guarantees.” In fact, research by organizational psychologist Adam Grant, Ph.D., author of Give and Take, shows that strong social and emotional skills, including collaboration and empathy, are what truly drive career success.

Illustration by Bijou Karman

See the child you have.

One way to teach our kids empathy is to cherish them just as they are. This means taking off the glasses that we’ve painted a rosy picture on—a picture of our child as a straight-A student, say, or a gymnastics star. Each child is uniquely themself—not the same as their older siblings or as you were as a kid or as you wish you’d been. Parents advisor Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a B Minus, suggests approaching your child and their interests as if you were a cultural anthropologist—with open curiosity rather than judgment. If they declare they’re going to be a deejay when they grow up, for instance, instead of jumping in to explain why you don’t think that’s a sensible career option, you could say, “Ah, tell me more. I’ve always wondered, how do they make that scratchy sound?” Whoever it is they aren’t (a kid who studies for math tests, for instance, or puts their nose eagerly to the homework grindstone) will always matter less than who they are.

Find the ideal way to motivate your kid.

Especially when it comes to kids who aren’t putting a lot of effort into their schoolwork, you can make a connection to what they care most about. Help your child understand that the parts of school they don’t like are a means to an end. A kid who wants to be a chef—or just likes to cook—will need to understand math and science, among other more specific kitchen skills. One who wants to be a dairy farmer might see school as irrelevant—but they’re going to need geometry to figure out the grazing rotations. Education expert Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, advises saying, “We have to do the stuff we don’t want to do in order to meet our higher goals.” Of course, most kids don’t know yet what they want to be when they grow up. Lythcott-Haims suggests saying, “‘What are the one or two subjects that make you feel jazzed? Those are the ones you want to put the most effort into and take as far as you can.’"

Don’t push perfection.

“Parents always tell kids, ‘Do your best!’ ” but kids often hear, ‘Do the best that you can possibly imagine,’” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. But ample research has linked perfectionism in kids with troubles such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. A better approach is to encourage your child to make a reasonable effort depending on the importance of the task, how they’re feeling, and what else they have on their plate. Every piece of homework or test or sports game won’t be flawless, so create a safe haven at home where your kids have a little room to breathe. You can do this, in part, by valuing improvement and personal bests. “That’s your best spelling quiz yet,” you might notice, even if the score is a so-so 7 out of 10.

Honor struggle.

Indeed, pioneering research on growth mindset by Stanford psychology professor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., shows that intelligence is not fixed: The more you challenge yourself, the more your brain adapts. It’s a useful phenomenon to explain to our kids, especially when we’re encouraging them to keep tackling challenges at school and elsewhere. “Reassure your child that it takes a while to learn most skills, and struggling is a sign that their brain is growing,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.

You can also tell them stories about how far they’ve come to remind them that the struggle is—or might be—temporary. “When you taught yourself to tie your shoes, it was so hard at first! Remember when you threw your sneakers down the stairs? But now it’s easy for you.” Also share your own struggles. “I had a hard time with cursive too!” you can say. “It was all just a million squiggles that I didn’t understand.” If your frustrated social-studies student storms out, seeks help, and then sits back down, you can validate the process by saying, “You’re working so hard!” rather than “You’re so good at social studies” or “You’ll get a good grade.”

Appreciate all of your child’s gifts.

You want your kids to see themselves as well-rounded—not in the college-application sense, but in the sense of being more than their metric, tangible achievements. What is your child good at or fascinated by? What are their notable character traits? Bravery, humor, gratitude, curiosity, persistence, kindness? These often make up the beautiful flip side of traits we find more challenging. Stubbornness, for instance, is a less positive way to describe persistence; the negative term lazy might be masking a valuable kind of contentedness. Maybe your kid is patient with their grandparents, a collaborative group participant in school, or a fantastic conversationalist.

“I’m of the school of ‘know your strengths and build on them’ rather than ‘know all your weaknesses and try to improve,’ ” says Lythcott-Haims. “That’s a life of drudgery.” And there are so many ways to be “smart” besides school. Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of Ready or Not, reminds us to value the traits that kids will need to navigate our rapidly changing world: emotional intelligence, self-regulation, adaptability, risk taking, and experimentation. “We need to redefine success,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore says, “from purely metrics-based to a much broader notion of what constitutes a well-lived life.”

Value relationships.

Ultimately, our most important job as parents is to teach our children how to connect with and get along with other people, Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. “How do we love? How do argue and make up? How do we enjoy each other? Helping kids learn those fundamental social and emotional skills is our best bet for raising successful kids.” And this time in history can offer us clearer perspective and a way forward. As Lahey says, “This is a moment to put our greater good above our own individual needs and wants.”

It’s understandable to be worried about this unpredictable school year, but our kids are proving to be more resilient and flexible than we’d realized. If we have to let go of a little perfectionism right now? A narrowly defined idea of what matters? Good. Maybe the Harvard Making Caring Common project would find different survey results now that this generation has experienced a global pandemic and widespread protests calling for social justice. Maybe the researchers would find that kids care more about other people and less about rigid notions of personal success. And maybe that very caring will inspire greater passion to rebuild the world, using all the skills, intelligence, and talents they’ve got. Or that they will have, when they’ve grown a little more. We just need to trust that they’re exactly who they’re supposed to be.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's September 2020 issue as “Your Kid Doesn't Need to be the Best.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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