A few years ago, I got the idea in my head that maybe we should look into transferring our kids to a “better” school with a better reputation and higher academic ratings. Students were accepted or rejected according to how they performed on a standardized test. I sat in the cafeteria with about 8 other moms while our kindergarteners took this standardized test. These mothers were all chatting about the extensive preparation they had gone through with their child: months and years of hand-selected preschools, some mothers holding their kids back just to increase their chance of getting into this elite school.
Later, I received a phone call from the school’s special test lady, letting me know that because of the test scores, my kindergartener had not made it into the school. She offered her condolences for the gaps in my child’s education that were so obviously due to the shoddy education she was currently receiving. She acted like a doctor breaking the news that my child had a terminal illness that perhaps could have been prevented if we’d taken action sooner.
But then I spoke with this same lady again at a later date, about my two older children. She didn’t recognize me from our previous conversation. These two children had standardized test scores that were much higher than even this stellar school’s average. She was so puffed up with false flattery that I wanted to stick a pin right through my phone: “You must be an exceptional mother to have raised such brilliant children that will now have endless possibilities under our care here at our exceptional school!”
Riiiight. I’m actually the same failure of a mother you talked to a couple weeks ago about my failing child over here in Scumville. In the end, we decided to keep all 3 children where they already were, in a notoriously less-reputable school system. And lo and behold, they’re all doing fine, even my “failure” child.
And how about another story that is all too familiar? I was at a basketball game for my son this past season, and there was a parent on the other team who spent his time jogging up and down the court in tandem with his son, yelling instructions from the sidelines. He was shouting at his son to “step it up,” lecturing him on the sidelines during time-outs, getting mad at the poor teenaged volunteer who was reffing the game. His son was exhausting himself to keep up, and near tears during each lecture. Afterwards, I heard the father bragging about how his son had made a more “elite” non-city league and about how his son could make 3-pointers most of the time, even at this young age.
These stories illustrates well the pressure parents are under to have our children’s academics and athletics in top notch form from day one. Having felt the tug myself, I can relate to the hyperactive worry. After all, we are told that their education and extracurricular activities now will determine their future educational opportunities, and their future educational opportunities will determine their success and happiness for their entire life, right?
So, we set out to secure this future happiness and success for our children, sometimes at the cost of current happiness and success. We put aside money in education plans from birth, even if it means living on rice and beans, so we can hand them their privileged education on a platter when they fly the coop. We spend obscene amounts of time on academic projects and/or athletic practices, events, fundraisers and competitions . We live, breathe, and eat homework. We time their reading, test their spelling, and dream of the future it’s earning them. School and athletics override all--family time, childhood, moderation, reason. The stress is laid on thick. And even if our kid manages to remain naive to the never-ending burden of it all, the parents certainly don’t. Always, in the back of our mind is the pressure: Must. Excel. Must not let down my guard. Must be the best. Best parent. Best kid. Best school. MOST success and happiness EVER!!!!!!!
For the love! Can we just calm down? We don’t live to get an education, we get an education to live. How easy it is to suck the love of learning and growing and developing and sports and reading right out of our kids’ education and extracurricular activities in the name of being the best! And if we’re not careful, we can create a lot of misery in the pursuit of this supposed happiness.
In the story, You Are Special by Max Lucado, we hear a tale of wooden puppets called Wemmicks. They walk around town and give each other yellow stars for all of their notable achievements. They put gray dots on people who don’t have noticeable achievements. At one point in the story, the main character, a Wemmick named Punchinello, is covered with so many gray dots that other Wemmicks conclude, with finality: “He’s not a good person.”
Our society is obsessed with yellow stars. We fixate on the outer trappings of success, the labels, awards, titles, and stats, and we make the same mistake as the Wemmicks do: we assume that it is those outer trappings that determine whether someone is a “good person” or not. It is only these “good people” that are considered successful and deemed worthy of happiness. Our yellow stars are so many things: which college someone went to, what their job title is, how many spelling bees their child has won, who is the star athlete, who aced the standardized test, the best performer in the talent show, and so on and so forth.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying seeking these “outer trappings” is bad. A lot of these pursuits are actually incredibly worthy ones because they teach our kids how to work hard, how to endure, and how to face obstacles. What I am saying is that as a society we often fall for the false notion that yellow stars are the end goal, the sole reason for doing anything.
It is not the title that you have that matters. It is who you have become in achieving that title. We need to ask ourselves: Where are my children finding their sense of self worth? Are they becoming good people with high moral character? Are they learning to serve? Can they cope when they don’t win or aren’t the best? Are they learning how to support and be happy for others in their successes? Are they learning to be upbeat, kind and positive even when life isn’t fair? If so, then good. If they gained that through academics or athletics, fine. If they gained that through the pursuit of yellow stars, fine. But ultimately, whatever the pursuit, it ought to be done in the name of becoming better and/or blessing the lives of others. In turn, this hard work and character development will also be indispensable in securing the future we hope our child will have--that of self reliance and family happiness.
How about we tout our children’s character development as much as their academic or athletic success? Inner traits are just as much talents as outward accomplishments. Praise them for their kindness, their service, their humility, their hard-working nature, their endurance, their patience, their fortitude. Let’s work as hard at developing these in our children as we do in drilling them on their spelling words and yelling at them on the basketball courts. And while they are certainly learning some of those valuable character traits as they memorize spelling words and practice basketball, let’s not make the mistake of assigning all worth to the end result of those tasks; rather, the things they learned while pursuing them.
In the end, what does it matter if you win an Olympic gold medal if you are a jerk to your fellow competitors? What does it matter if you have a Harvard degree if you cheated 20% of the time to get it? What does it matter if you are a star high school athlete if you instigate vulgar locker room talk and bullying? What does it matter if you are the top reader in your class if you don’t know how to fulfill assignments and work hard? What does it matter if you are in top fitness shape if you neglect your family to get there? What does it matter if you are a famous journalist if you mouth off at parking attendants? What does it matter if you win awards for business management if you take advantage of people and manipulate them to your own gain?
Do you get my point? All of these labels we attach so much importance to are not the real story. They are not what, truly, in the end, matters. We need to teach our children that success doesn’t lie only with a heart surgeon, scientist, or prestigious college graduate. Success isn’t defined by wealth, position, education, and status. Success is no more measured in which college they attend or which career they pursue than it is measured in a standardized test score. Success isn’t about how they compare to others. It’s not about being the best, but about being their best.
Some of the happiest people I know went to local community colleges. Some of them are plumbers. Some of them did hit the big leagues for college and moved on to great careers. Some of them obtained a college degree and then pursued something completely unrelated to that degree. Some of them are mothers. Some of them are wealthy entrepreneurs who never went to college. They are all different and unique.
But these happy people also have a few things in common. They found an area where they can excel. They are focused on family, on others, on goodness. They live a balanced life. They live with conviction and strive for improvement, yet they don’t obsess over the injustice in the world. They instead embrace and celebrate the good in the world. They compete against themselves and not others. They love to love and learn and live.
THIS is success. THIS is what matters for our children. THIS is happiness.