Kids around the country are headed back to school and it won’t be long before they bring home their first graded assignment or progress report. As a parent, it is difficult to not to set expectations or benchmarks for our children to reach in school. We all want our kids to do well, work hard, and be successful. Sometimes though, I worry about the things that parents say to their children when they don’t meet the goals or expectations we have set for them.
This past June, the mom of a 5th grader at my daughters’ school told me she was disappointed in her daughter for receiving a “low” math grade. On a grading scale from 1 to 4 with 4 being the highest, her daughter had received a 3. I asked the mom why she was disappointed and she answered that because math was her daughter’s best subject she expected her to get 4’s. On top of that, upon seeing the report card, she said to her daughter, “I’m not mad at you, but I am disappointed in you.”
This is not the first parent I have heard say this to their child and it makes me cringe every time. Sometimes it is about grades, sometimes it is about sports or something else that their child is involved with. The comment might take the form of, “if my child had just put a little more effort into what they were doing, they could have made varsity.” I want to ask these parents, how exactly has your child disappointed you? Is it because it was enough for your child to be having fun and enjoying the experience of playing on a team without feeling the need to be the best? By not immediately understanding the material that was presented to them in class? By not putting 100% of their effort into everything they do every single day? Because they are not perfect?
In my opinion, we send our kids a very dangerous message when we tell them that by not meeting our expectations of them that they have disappointed us. We may think that we are motivating them to do better or pushing them to reach their “full” potential. I fear that instead we are telling them that our being NOT disappointed in them is dependent on them reaching expectations that are fully unrealistic. That their worth is dependent on us being able to brag to our neighbor at the bus stop that our child received the highest of grades. That our love for them is in any way conditional. I don’t want my children to feel that just because they are good at something it means that they have to be perfect at it.
Through these comments we also teach them that it is not enough to learn for learning’s sake- That playing just because it is fun is not reason enough.
I think that as parents we need to ask ourselves- What kind of child am I trying to raise? Is it my goal to raise a child who always gets A’s in the subject areas she is strongest in? A child who makes the travel soccer team? A child who needs to be constantly striving for perfection? A child who is doing things only to please her parents?
This summer, my daughter signed up for a drawing class. By the third class in she had decided that she really wasn’t enjoying it. At all. There were only three classes remaining. I thought about telling her that she had to stick it out because she shouldn’t be a quitter, that she should finish what she started, that she had made a commitment and she should always honor her commitments. I felt disappointed that the class hadn’t worked out because I had hoped it would be a really positive experience for her. But on the car ride home, when she asked me if I was mad at her or disappointed in her that she had dropped out of the class I told her no. I told her I was proud of her. I was proud of her for trying something new and then recognizing that it was not a good fit. I was proud of her for vocalizing that she wanted to remove herself from an environment that was not positive for her. This was not a failed art class. This was a successful setting of boundaries- of not being willing to be unhappy simply for the sake of feeling like she had to do her best.
How many of us stick with things that make us miserable because we feel like we have a responsibility to do so. How many of us stay at jobs that we hate longer than we should; in relationships that are unhealthy because we made a commitment. How many of us wish that we had the courage to just walk away from things in our life that our making us unhappy.
There are plenty of things that we have no control over. Obviously, my kids have to go to school. I want them to do well. But more than I want them to do well, I want them to be happy. I want them to not spend time worrying about whether or not they are disappointing me but to take notice of the things they are really interested in so they can discover what they feel passionate about. It’s entirely possible that what they like the best will not be what they get the highest grades in and I don’t want them to believe for one second that they cannot pursue passions because they have not met certain standards or that they have to excel in an area simply because it comes easily to them.
I want my children to set their own goals and choose their own definition of success. My goal for them is only that they be happy and well adjusted. I want them to feel loved unconditionally and to know that the grades they receive on a test or a report card are in no way a definition of who they are as a person. I want them to be proud of themselves based on the expectations and goals that they set for themselves- not because they have met a standard I have set for them.