I often get email from parents worried about a child who is not being challenged enough at school. Perhaps this kid has gotten used to acing easy assignments. Now they’re struggling for the first time. Maybe they’re showing some strange new behaviors.
The good (and also possibly bad news) is that you and (if applicable) your spouse/partner have far more influence over your child than any one teacher.
You Have The Power. Beware!
I’ve written about my own fear of taking risks and how I instead sought those easy As. While teachers contributed to this problem, my parents were the main factor.
My parents praised me for being “smart.” They bragged to other family members about my straight As. But those As required little effort. My parents rewarded me for doing easy things. They (accidentally!) taught me to avoid challenges.
I wanted more of their praise so, naturally, I did what they praised me for! I delivered easy wins. And soon, this became my guiding principle: do as little as necessary to get straight As.
After all, an easy A is more impressive than an A that required a bunch of work, right?
Friend, this mindset didn’t serve me well as I moved into adulthood.
1. Be Careful With Praise
So, as a parent, be careful with your praise.
I don’t mean be stingy with praise.
No no. Praise away! But think carefully about what you’re actually praising. Kids will give you what you ask for.
Are you recognizing and praising effort? Or merely the outcome? This is hard! You have to really pay attention. Is that A actually praiseworthy? Perhaps the 80% is worth more praise, because the kid worked their butt off for it.
When I brought home my first B in high school, it was really a big opportunity to praise me. I worked harder for that B than any other A that I had ever received. But my parents weren’t aware of that effort. They only paid attention to the report card, not my day-to-day effort. And when that B showed up, they absolutely freaked out. “What’s wrong with you!?” was the general sentiment. My mom had a meeting with my teacher to find out what had happened!
My parents bragged about my easy As and embarrassed me over my hard-earned B.
So, guess what I aimed for?
Be aware of what you’re praising and how you’re praising it. I’d recommend the book Mindset, which is about how praise influences kids’ choices. If you praise perfection, kids will seek easy tasks and deliver perfection.
With my students, we’d talk about how our muscles only get stronger when we push them past their limits. If we give up right when we start to struggle, we’ll simply never grow. You’d never praise a weightlifter for easily picking up a small amount of weight, right? No, we celebrate when they just barely get a very heavy bar up and over their head – even though they may look like a fool as they struggle to push it up.
Now, here’s where the rubber really meets the road. Do you model the kind of attitude you want in your child? Do you take the difficult path and celebrate your 80% success? Or do you stay safe and take the easy 100%?
Do you model an attitude of, “I may be bad at this now, but I’ll keep at it until I’m good!” Do you grunt and sweat and make a weird face and just barely get that weight up? Or do you lift the easy five-pounder over and over.
Perhaps more importantly (although not always applicable), what does your spouse/partner model?
For example, while my mom had no problem looking foolish and trying new things and making mistakes along the way, my dad wanted to maintain an illusion of perfection. He mocked people who made mistakes, so I learned to avoid making mistakes. I watched him and internalized that the process of getting better at something is somehow embarrassing.
I didn’t see my dad try new things, struggle, fail, and then get up and try again. I saw him celebrate his wins and hide his failures. So I learned to do that myself.
3. Offer Opportunities for Small, Safe Failures
So, what can you actually do at home to promote the kind of attitude towards learning that we all want from our kids? You want situations without obvious, one-right-path solutions; situations where kids have to make a choice between multiple perfectly-ok options; situations where you can make a mistake, recover, and be totally fine in the end.
- Do you travel? Let your kid make major decisions. Let them plan the trip. Let them navigate airports and new towns. Let them figure out how to get to the car rental place. Make them check in at the hotel. This is a chance to make mistakes, get lost, and still find the right place. When my family went on trips, my sister and I just blindly followed the plan my dad made.
- Do you make food? Let your kid cook! Let them pick and follow a recipe. Let them chop some vegetables. Let them decide if the chicken is actually ready. You can make mistakes while cooking and the food will often turn out just fine. An 80% burger is still pretty darn good. And sometimes mistakes make the meal better!
- At a restaurant? Let your kid order for everyone. Or, feeling very brave, ask for something that’s not on the menu. (Seriously, my wife does this. I speak about it here.).
- Going to a game? Or the theater? Make your kid find the seats. Make them figure out the ticket. Make them talk to the attendant.
- Driving literally anywhere? Your kid has to navigate. It’s ok to make a wrong turn. It’s ok to get somewhere five minutes later. We can recover from mistakes.
Basically, you want chances for your kid to step out and take a risk. You want them to experience small, easily-recoverable failures. Because that’s how we learn!
You really want them to experience that perfection is unreasonable.
So, yes, it can be disheartening to see your child in a not-so-interesting educational environment. But, as a parent, you have the power. Your specific praise is very important. You kid will deliver what you praise. But your actions are even more important. And being on the same page with your spouse or partner is, perhaps, most important of all.