Psychology has always fascinated me, so much so that I got a BA in it from the University of Texas. The fact that I have twins- the perfect nature vs nurture at home psychological study- is always in the back of my mind when assessing children. My girls were raised in the same home, with the same experiences, and with the same opportunities. And yet, they could not be more opposite. Children are complex and wonderful, but even after 25+ years in education I can’t tell you what the typical 5-year-old is like, because each one is unique. They have overlapping traits, but beyond developmental milestones, I try not to compare a child to anyone. Success is measured in growth, not in what everyone else is doing.
As parents and educators, we often fall into the comparison trap. In today’s Instagram world, it’s easy to look at what a child ISN’T doing and pile on expectations many adults would crumble under. We use test scores and deadlines to push our children down a very narrow path. It is an untenable load for many. We felt that weight this week in our home.
My girls are both bright and apply themselves academically. They attend a highly competitive AP/IB school of nearly 3,000 students where straight A’s are the norm. Both are members of the Science Club and Environmental Club. Bailey loves being in the thick of things and does a great job balancing her core academics with being an executive officer in choir and the chief design editor for yearbook. Sarah loves a challenge and has pushed herself with seven advanced science classes in 4 years in addition to choir, ceramics, and painting. Even with more advanced placement classes and a GPA of 4.9, Sarah wasn’t accepted into NHS and Bailey was.
Why the hell not?
Because students are expected to be perfect academically, a high GPA was only her ticket into the application process. In order to be considered, she needed to reach an arbitrary magic number of extracurricular points. But not just any resume padding activities would get you points. Forget her amazing pottery. There is no value in painting. Never mind her incredible bravery every time she faces her social anxiety and sings anyway. No, they want officers, editors, and winners only. All others need not apply.
What does it teach our children when we only value one measure of success and are constantly comparing them to others? My beautiful, talented, sensitive Sarah felt like a failure. The child with the higher GPA, who works harder to overcome anxiety, the artists who gets lost in her work, she was told all her effort wasn’t good enough.
Our quest to be the best demonstrates that there is a right way to be. Increasingly, our society teaches children that straight A’s and getting into the “right” 4-year university are the only pathways to financial rewards and career success. But what about the artist and the chef? What would we do without the craftsman and the mechanic? All too often those positions are relegated to working for those who succeed instead of as success stories in their own right.
A single path crushes dreams. In today’s cutthroat academics, success comes at the cost of sleep, family time, relaxation, and hobbies. I know students who get as little as 5 hours of sleep on a nightly basis. These are children. Their bodies aren’t even done growing and we expect them to put in 60+ hour weeks. I am so proud of their hard work, but many nights my girls only take a brief break for dinner before hitting the books again. These are minors working 11 and 12 hour days. When are they supposed to explore the world? How do adults expect them to know what they want to be when they grow up if we never give them the chance to discover who they are? The chance to fail, pick themselves back up, and try something new.
So how do we help our children, when this is the world they live in? It starts the moment they are born. Instead of comparing your child to anyone, focus on the journey they are on. Encourage them to explore. Let them fail. Be a safety net as they test their wings.
Adults must model self-care by clearing our own schedules and creating quiet time every day for the children in our lives. Everyone needs unscheduled downtime, children especially. Then we must change our own vocabulary. Instead of telling a child they did well on an activity, essentially judging it, tell your child what you noticed. For instance, point out how many colors they used in a drawing, or how you noticed they were sounding out words they once asked you to read for them. When we point out what a child has accomplished instead of judging it externally, we allow them to feel a sense of ownership and pride. Last, we have to stop comparing our children. If your child is working hard and the best grade they get is a C, celebrate the C. Your child may not be a rocket scientist, but they might be DaVinci. They may not be able to write a sonnet, but they might cure cancer. Stop worrying about the test scores and the extracurriculars for college when they are only 5. Be present in the now.
Easy to write, not so easy to live. Adults must stop judging ourselves. Then we need to slow down and allow for downtime at home and in the classroom. Pause and look back over the journey. You will be amazed at the progress. Celebrate the success of living and growing and exploring. Laugh at the bumps in the road. Get out a map and see what detours look fun.
If we take the time to really see the life we have, the focus shifts from external measures to the path we walk. Enjoy the journey.