When it comes to academics, I’ve been thinking about where to set the bar for my kids, and about the topic in general.
A reader commented: “One thing that’s tough for me and my husband is that neither of our kids seems to have much of a work ethic. We rarely see them study. My Daughter does her homework on the school bus. If we let them, my daughter and son would watch movies, play video games and be on-line 24/7. We restrict our son’s electronics use (to about an hour and a half a day) more than our daughter’s because of the age difference. I believe that, unless she gets low grades, we probably should let her choose her own study habits, but it’s hard to stay back and let her live her life differently than I would. Next year when she starts high school and grades go on her permanent transcript, I think my husband and I will have a hard time.”
Another reader sent me a link to Obama talking off the cuff about his daughter (see link: http://tiny.cc/TyFH8). In essence he says she came home with a 75 on a test and thought it was pretty good. He explained that the bar in their family was 90. Later he noticed her trying harder and getting a score in the mid 90’s.
Now on the one hand, setting the bar high (within respect for our child’s ability level, learning differences, etc.) is a good way to cultivate achievement, but on the other hand there are studies that suggest that an emphasis on academic achievement, at least at the preschool level, seems to correlate with no difference in academic achievement in early elementary school, but it did correlate with increased anxiety.
Many times kids who fail to show much engagement with their schoolwork are actually bored. In my view any subject is interesting if taught by a teacher who truly understands and has some passion about it (and a modicum of humor helps enormously). Other times kids will feign disinterest when in fact the work makes them feel inadequate due to a learning difference or gap in abilities.
School refusal, or falling grades can also be symptoms of self-esteem issues, bullying, anxiety or depression. To optimally support our children we need to understand them. If they struggle, we want to know more about that struggle; if they’re bored we need to at least understand the way they feel. We also need to differentiate our own ambitions from those of our children—even if we’re the president.
Recently my middle-schooler was studying for a test and said he just wanted to get a B. I told him about what Obama said and he asked, “So is that going to be the bar in our house?” I replied that I wasn’t sure; that what I really looked for was effort, but if we shoot for 90 and fall short we’ve still got a solid B, while if we shoot for 80 and miss the mark that’s getting into territory below his ability level. Obama’s family is a pretty high bar by any account, but then again we sometimes need to reach to exceed our grasp in order to grow… and still stay Zen in the process.
So, let’s dedicate today to giving some thought to our children’s level of motivation and engagement, asking ourselves if our kids feel truly understood by us in this area. The goal would be more to open dialogue and deepen understanding. As interested, non-critical, and non-judgmental parents we might best cultivate and enhance our children’s natural curiosities and work ethics through our authentically caring about what they think and feel as well as what grades they earn and what they might “be when they grow up.”
One last thing: if we happen to be hard working and achieving parents and we want our kids to follow in our footsteps, we’d better make it look fun. Kids are smart; why would they want to do as we do if we appear anxious, depressed or otherwise miserable. If we’re not happy, the kids are unlikely to be happy, and the new learning that might be in order is how we might become happier—often through coming to want what is, what we already have, including kids who have the work ethic that they have right now. Whether it’s our own unhappiness, or our kid’s lack of motivation, if truly accepted, these may become freer to change and evolve.
So, let’s think deeply, work pragmatically and try to find happiness through the radical embrace of parenting and whatever else may be on our plates today—done in the service of all our collective children.