I remember it like it was yesterday. Picking up my daughter from school with plans to head to the gorgeous Japanese Gardens on the campus of nearby Cal State Long Beach (btw, if you live in the area or have plans to visit this is a GREAT way to spend an afternoon). We’d feed the koi fish, spend some time together, talk about our days. I’d been looking forward to it all morning. We were – and still are — so lucky to be able to do things like that.
My happy girl passed me her pack as she hopped into the back seat and, compelled to check the day’s work before even leaving the lot, I opened her folder and found a failed math test. My heart raced and my stomach knotted. I was shocked. She’d always been at the top of her class, with good grades coming easily. I was so stunned that I had a hard time recovering enough to enjoy our walk through the gardens. Although I put on a happy face, I could hardly wait to get home and dig into that test, review the questions with her, see what in the world could have happened. Instead of relishing every minute with my daughter in that special setting, my mind was spinning. Oh, did I mention? She was in second grade.
I wish I could say this was the last time that I over reacted to what is a natural part of growing up – failure. Instead of seeing a low test score or botched dive in a meet as an opportunity to teach my beautiful, smart, loving, kind, funny, brave, athletic daughter how to pick herself up by her bootstraps, identify a problem and come up with a plan to solve it, overcome difficulty and disappointment, learn that practice makes perfect, to never give up, or one of a million other invaluable life lessons, I (internally) panic. Every time. And I don’t think I’m alone here.
The new “growth mindset” making its way into classrooms around the country addresses this very issue, from the student’s point of view. Just because you haven’t mastered something YET doesn’t mean you won’t, eventually. Every brain – young and old – has the potential to grow, to push through something new or difficult and master it in time. A low score is just the starting point. From there, with work, it’s nowhere but up and you CAN do it! If you haven’t watched Carol Dweck’s TED Talk on growth mindset, you really should. It’s incredibly inspiring.
So that addresses our kids and their take on failure. But what about us, the panicked parents in pursuit of perfection? Where’s our pep talk? Who’s going to shake our shoulders and tell us that it’s going to be okay? The former dean of admissions at Stanford University – that’s who. The first time I heard them, Julie Lythcott-Haimes’ words were like a ray of sunshine, a literal deep breath of fresh air, a lifting of the proverbial weight from my shoulders. Essentially, Lythcott-Haimes says that by pushing our kids to achieve perfection in the name of “offering the best opportunities”, we are depriving them of the chance to help them become their truest selves – which is, of course, the real definition of successful parenting.
“When we treat grades and scores and accolades and awards as the purpose of childhood, all in furtherance of some hoped for admission to a tiny number of colleges or entrance to a small number of careers, that’s too narrow a definition of success for our kids!” – Julie Lythcott-Haimes
The mom of two teens, Lythcott-Haimes says we are asking our kids to perform at a level of perfection we were never held to as kids. Sound familiar? Lord knows it’s true for me! I wasn’t a perfect student. Or a perfect gymnast. I didn’t go to the very best college. And I didn’t get the very best grades when I was there. But here I am, productive, successful, and, yes, happy. So why am I pushing my perfect-just-as-she-is daughter toward academic perfection, at the risk of damaging her psyche, instead of helping her acquire the everyday life skills that translate to happiness and success? Lythcott-Haimes knows why AND what we can do about it – and she’ll tell you, too. I implore you to listen – these will be the best-spent 14 minutes of your day, I promise.
Amy Opheim is a mom, wife, and freelance writer based in Southern California.