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I’ve been thinking lately about how we all have hopes and dreams for our kids.
Even when we know that they are their own people, we can’t help but want amazing things for them.
But, with that seemingly good desire, there is a dark side.
I recently read this article in the Philadelphia Magazine about the stresses facing today’s teenagers. (Yes, we live in the southwest and subscribe to the Philly mag!)
I found it really interesting, but, like my thoughts on raising brave girls, something about the article bothered me.
So, ya know, instead of falling asleep last night I thought about the author’s ideas that parents are to blame (at least somewhat) for the pressures on kids.
And I had to wonder, how can I protect my child from the pressures of grades and college and perfectionism?
I thought it was interesting that the author mentioned that kids from higher socio-economic statuses who seem to have all the advantages and opportunities are the ones with the highest stress levels.
Because we all want our kids to have a leg up, to give them opportunities to do whatever they want in life.
By wanting these things for them are we unknowingly harming them?
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How do we protect our kids from perfectionism?
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I had to think back to my own high school days to try to remember what the pressures were.
Sure, there was pressure to go to college, to get in to a really good school, to make the money our parent’s spent on our education “worth it”.
But something that the girls interviewed in the article said really stuck out to me:
“Paige, too, has high expectations for herself, born of both ambition and obligation. One of her extracurriculars is volunteering at a school in South Philadelphia, and the experience has helped drive home to her the advantages she has. “I think I feel an internal pressure to do something great,” she says, “to use my education to do something great, like cure cancer. Do something for the greater good, since I’ve been given this leg up. I think that’s where I feel the need to excel and get all A’s.” The pressure isn’t just about succeeding in the future. Sarah says that working as hard as possible right now is the debt she owes for the opportunity she’s been given.”
Read more at here.
And at first read, that obligation to make the world a better place feels noble and good…but dig a little deeper and something just feels…off about it.
This is what I was wrestling with in the middle of the night – what’s wrong with trying to make the world better?
I couldn’t help but think of that old saying “the world doesn’t owe you anything”.
But do we (and our children) owe something to the world?
What ultimately makes that obligation to do something great and serve the greater good feel off and cause so much turmoil for our kids is that it comes from the wrong place.
It comes from a place of want and emptiness.
None of us need to earn a right to be here.
We have a right to exist in this world whether we cure cancer or not.
There’s a hole in our children that they are trying to fill with external achievements and busyness.
The problem is that no matter how many awards they receive, what college they go to, or where they volunteer, it will never be enough.
Volunteering and making a positive impact in the world are great and noble ideals.
But they will be far more fulfilling for our children when they come from a place of overflowing generosity rather than as a way to shore up a fragile ego.
And it will be a greater impact in this world when it comes from generosity of spirit.
This is why wealth and privilege are not necessities for changing the world.
Some of the greatest world changers have been simple people making small impacts in their communities.
All of this is great for understanding the issues facing teens today, but how do we protect our kids from feeling this way?
I thought this passage was extremely interesting:
“My wife and I, for instance, have never really emphasized grades with Sarah or her older sister — the message has been more Just do your best — but the other day, Sarah took my chill attitude and flipped it back in my smug face. “You give yourself such credit for not pressuring me,” she said, “but the truth is, if I got C’s and B’s, you’d definitely put pressure on me.” What’s more, she went on, the “do your best” message actually just increases the stress she feels, since if she fails, it means she isn’t capable.”
Read more here.
We all want our children to do their best – but maybe that’s not really what we mean.
Maybe what we really mean is that we want them to find fulfillment in the learning process.
To be willing to give something new a try.
But the words we’re using are actually doing more harm than good.
I’m about halfway through this book (which I can’t recommend highly enough) and the chapter on praise addresses this exact issue.
When use general praise (like ‘try your best’, ‘you’re so smart’, ‘good job’) it actually pressures our kids to be perfect – and often times to just give up.
We’re better off describing what we see (‘I saw you concentrating really hard to get your socks on by yourself’, or ‘you did it’, or ‘sometimes ___ is hard, but you kept working at it until you got it’) is actually much more helpful at giving kids that inner resilience and grit.
We stop focusing on praising the result and help them see that they have the inner resources to do anything they set their minds to.
All of this has to start younger than the teenage years.
We need to start helping our children navigate these issues starting as toddlers.
I’ve noticed my toddler become frustrated when things like a puzzle or putting her socks on are a struggle.
I have to remind her that she’s frustrated because it’s difficult, but that she can do hard things.
Sometimes it means I need to step in and give a little help so she can succeed.
But when she does her confidence and awareness of her own capabilities increases.
So next time she’s much more willing to give it a try and to work on it longer by herself.
One of her favorite phrases when she succeeds is ‘I did it’.
And that sense of accomplishment is really what increases her internal drive to succeed.
I can see that when I praise her effort rather than a result that her vision of herself as a capable person grows.
Unfortunately, our school systems do not have the same philosophy.
Younger and younger children are expected to learn academic concepts far beyond their abilities.
These unrealistic expectations (count to 100 in kindergarten or go to therapy for a learning disorder?) are killing a love for learning.
And they’re setting our children up for these perfectionist traits.
Because schools reward results, not the process.
Children receive the following message when they become frustrated by their inability to meet expectations.
They either give up, check out, and internalize the message “I can’t do it. I’m a failure” or their parent works with them to somehow make it happen.
That child then understands that getting the right answers and grades is important to the parents no matter what we may tell them later.
And that doing something well is the goal – so why try anything new that they won’t be exceptional at when they begin?
At the same time, the message is the same “I can’t do it. I’m a failure” but with the added message that our love for them may depend on their academic achievements.
I don’t know any parent that wants their child to feel that way.
This may be the reason we see so many alternative forms of schooling becoming more mainstream.
Child-centered learning that encourages children to realize their own strengths and capabilities.
We may also be unexpectedly adding to this feeling of conditional love with the activities that we sign them up starting at a young age.
We want to expose our kids to lots of activities so they can find things they enjoy and provide opportunities to grow and learn.
But by over scheduling we may accidentally send the message that busyness is the only way to be happy.
And give them just one more thing that they feel they ‘have’ to succeed in.
Dance classes stop being about enjoyment and start to become something to put on a college application.
Sports stop being about team work and fun as they become a means to a college scholarship.
As parents, we need to help our children learn to say no to some of these activities.
It’s easy when they’re little (you can find out how I slow my home here).
But becomes more challenging as they grow and develop their own interests.
At the end of the day, we are the parents and our job is to guide them through these challenges.
And, sometimes, that means helping them by saying no to an activity.
Sometimes, it means saying no to ourselves as well.
Because our own ego can get caught up in our child’s achievements.
And by having the tools to give them the right kind of praise when the world is giving them the message that greatness is only found in external awards and achievements.
We need to emphasize unscheduled time in our homes.
Time to read, dream, and think.
And, yes, time to be bored.
When we provide these quiet times, we help our children develop creativity and self-awareness.
Two things that are so important but that both need to grow in stillness.
So, maybe our kids won’t get a college scholarship or be a professional dancer.
But, maybe they will become people value calm lives and who can hear their own inner voice.
The one that says they are enough, just as they are.
That they don’t need to be anything spectacular to be loved and cherished by us.
That they are extraordinary in their own ordinariness.
I think that’s far more valuable to a growing human.
We can show them that there’s value in living an extraordinary ordinary life. A simple life.
That they are free to spend time on what they enjoy simply because they enjoy it.
Showing our kids that there are many ways to define success is important, too.
We’ve become extremely entrenched in a narrowly defined version of success.
With the ballooning of college tuition costs and the shrinking of acceptance rates, the pressures to do it all are growing.
But the truth is that going to college is not the only way to be successful.
There are more ways to make a difference in the world than just being a doctor or a lawyer.
The fact is, the world is changing and a college degree is not necessarily the key to a stable job or a successful life.
Success isn’t measured in a bank account, job title, or degree.
It also isn’t measured in grades.
Can we let our children chart their own paths in life with them knowing that we will love and support them no matter what that looks like?
If we can, we have to stop emphasizing grades, college, and career choice to help them discover their path.
And a lot of that means that we have to let go of the idea we have of who our child is and who they will be.
While letting go of the appearance that we have everything figured out.
It’s good for our kids to realize that life is an unfolding and that they don’t have to have all the answers.
Not at 18, not at 30, not ever.
This is how we protect our kids from perfectionism and stress.
We help them live a simpler life from the start.
Letting them choose their own path.
And we need to show them the beauty of living an ordinary life.
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