This is Part 2 of a blog series about cultivating your child’s inner voice.
So, recently my first-grade son comes up to me one evening and says, “Mom, I am terrible at spelling, and I just want to quit doing it!”
I was actually a bit surprised by this revelation because I know that my son usually gets at least a B on most of his spelling tests. As I listen to him tell me how he is not as good at spelling as the other kids in his class, I take in his defeated expression, and the resignation in his voice. I realize that even at 6 years old, he really believes that he is just no good at spelling, and that there is nothing he can do about it! When I question him further about why he feels this way, he says that he always misses at least one word, and that he never gets an A+ or “Perfect 100” (as he calls it).
I quickly realized that there were several ways in which I could respond to him. I could respond by trying to make him feel better, saying something like, “Honey, I am sure that you are just as good at spelling as any of the other kids,” and then distract him with ice cream.
Or I could blame any number of things for his struggle in spelling, such as the quality of the teacher, the noise level in the classroom, the distraction of other children, etc.
Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond in that moment, looking at his pitiful expression, so I said something along the lines of, “The whole purpose of a test is to measure how well you understand something, and if you miss questions on a test, it probably just means that we need to go over that material again to make sure you understand it better.”
As you can imagine, he looked up at me with a puzzled look, like he was trying to grasp what I was saying, but was having trouble understanding the concept.
As I thought about this situation later, I realized that without me ever saying anything about his spelling abilities, he had concluded that anything less than perfect meant he couldn’t do it. In his mind, his only choice was to quit.
Your Children Want to Make Your Proud
This got me thinking about the countless situations in which my other children had come to similar conclusions based on the assumption that a less-than-perfect outcome automatically meant failure. I was also reminded of the many times in my life that I had done the very same thing! I can’t tell you how many kids, adolescents and young adults have sat across from me in counseling sessions and said things like, “It doesn’t matter how hard I try, if I don’t achieve (fill in the blank), it’s not good enough for my parents.”
I think as parents, it is natural to want our children to be “the best, smartest, most-talented, best-looking, and most well-behaved” among their piers. However, it can be very easy to send the message that anything less than “the best” or “perfection” is unacceptable.
Let’s face it, we live in a world of comparison, and sadly, the main way many of us gauge whether we are successful, happy, beautiful, smart, or intelligent, is by comparing ourselves to others.
Unfortunately, we also do this with our children.
As parents, we often focus more on the outcome, and ignore the effort aspect of success. For example, we may say things like, “You hit the most home-runs this year, I am so proud of you,” or, “You always make A honor roll, I am so proud.”
Don’t get me wrong, I think it is crucial that we recognize our children’s accomplishments, and encourage them to achieve great things. However, what about the child that struggles in math, and works diligently to get his D up to a C+? What about the child who gives everything she has at softball practices and tournaments, even though she is not the “star player?”
Valuing Effort Over Outcome
Do we ever say things like, “I know math is a struggle for you, and I am so proud of the effort you have made to improve your math grade…?” This is an example of encouraging our children by recognizing the effort they are putting forth despite the struggle they are facing.
I don’t know of any parent that would come outright and say, “I expect perfection from you son!” However, when we only acknowledge the outcome, and fail to acknowledge the importance of effort, we may inadvertently send our children these messages. Let’s be real, it’s easy to win, to know that you are the best singer, dancer, ball player or student. It’s easy to achieve straight A’s when a subject comes naturally to you, but can it really be considered achieving if you don’t have to work for it?
When we as parents recognize the effort to overcome struggle within our children, we are teaching them that difficulties are a part of life; they can be viewed as a challenge rather than an obstacle.
A child with this attitude is more likely to push through life’s difficulties rather than to give up every time things get difficult for him. If a child’s view of success is solely based on the achievement of positive outcomes… if they do not learn to value the struggle of their best efforts to improve, they will more than likely give up before achieving success.
How Do We Teach the Value of Effort?
- Normalize struggle and the importance of hard work. We must teach our children that struggle is a part of life, and it is common to all of us. We must teach our children that we can do things that are difficult, and that doing difficult things makes us stronger and more resilient. Our children need to know that to achieve certain goals, they may have to put in greater effort.
- Identify areas of struggle. We need to help children identify and confront their areas of struggle. If one of my children is struggling with a subject in school, we should sit down to discuss this, and together, come up with ways to overcome this struggle. When my child comes up with ways in which he can put forth more of an effort to achieve a goal, he is more likely to commit to doing it.
- Set realistic goals. It is important for parents to teach children how to set realistic and achievable goals for themselves. We want to encourage our children to achieve “their best,” not “the best.” If my child has a D in math, it may be unrealistic to expect that she brings her grade up to an A before her next progress report. However, if it is lack of effort on her part, an increase in effort could make this possible. It all depends on the child, and his/her unique level of ability.
- Recognize and celebrate sincere effort. I don’t know about you, but when my child is truly trying hard to achieve something, I want to cheer him on! It is important for us as parents to recognize the sincere efforts put forth by our children, and celebrate with them, when they achieve their goals. Even if they fall short of a goal, it is still important to recognize any sincere efforts they have put forth. This conveys the message that we may have to work harder to achieve this goal, but we are closer than we were before.
I believe we one of the main ways in which we can ensure the success of our children, is by teaching them that we can do hard things. Outcome is not always the best measure of success, and often when we look at success, we fail to see the amount of effort it took to achieve it.
When kids understand that things don’t always come easy, that hard work and sacrifice are sometimes involved, they are more likely to push through adversity instead of viewing it as an immovable obstacle.