When I ask parents this question, the most common response is: I just want my kids to be happy. This is great in concept, but what does this really mean?
Be honest – what does happiness really mean to you? Do you want your children to work super hard so they are the smartest in class? Do you want them to constantly practice their sport so they are the best athlete? Do you want your children to have the best grades and test scores so they can go to the best university? Do you want your children to be powerful, rich and famous?
I think we have confused happiness with overachieving, competition, and being the best. These concepts are no longer in balance in our culture; they have become the norm rather than the extreme. We are quickly losing sight of what kids really need to live full and meaningful lives.
And the crazy thing is that it’s pretty simple – kids just need to be kids. They need time and space to play, dream, and be creative. Not just in an art class where teachers are telling them what to do or make, but open-ended time and space to be messy, dirty, crazy creative.
They also need downtime so they can dive into their imagination (the best imaginative play is often preceded by boredom). Children need to be silly, loud, and expansive, and they need time away from television and structured activities so they are free to tap into their own vision, thoughts, and dreams.
Yes, children need to learn how to read, write, and do math, but this kind of intelligence will come with time and practice. With educational and parental support they will get it – it may not be in exact alignment with the school’s schedule, or it may be at a different pace than their older sister or the kid they sit next to, but they will get it.
More important, we need to focus on our children’s emotional intelligence – they need to know how to be with people, how to take responsibility, how to compromise, how to handle challenging situations, and how to give back to a community.
As my girls get older I couldn’t care less if they are smartest ones in their classroom. I just want them to be comfortable in the classroom. I want them to enjoy learning, I want them to enjoy their friendships, and I want them to discover tools to deal with challenging academic or social experiences.
I want them to value knowledge and stay curious. I want them to work with partners and groups so they know how to work in a team. I want them to trust their instincts and understand that there are many definitions of the word “smart”.
After screening Race to Nowhere the other night, I found myself very emotional, almost in pain about what is reflected in this documentary. My hopes and dreams for my children’s education are at risk in a system that is solely focused on test scores and overachieving.
The movie showed wonderful teachers leaving the profession because they were expected to only teach to a test, and it shared stories of children whose stress levels were so high they wanted to leave school altogether, harm themselves physically with drugs or sleep deprivation, or even worse, take their own lives.
Why do they want to do this? Because of one test, one class, one grade, or one non-acceptance letter into a premier university.
I loved college, I highly recommend the experience, but not so much that I would let my children harm themselves to get in – staying up all night to study, taking other people’s pills to stay focused, or completely losing themselves so they can please others. This is not my definition of success.
I expect my children to go to school, do their best and ask for help when they need it.
I also expect my children to play, have a hobby, go to the park, and eat dinner with the family. I know for sure that they are not a test score or a grade; that is just one very small piece of their bigger self. I can guarantee that class rank will not dictate their future happiness.
Some of my favorite people in the world were not the best students. Their grades were fair, but their lives were full – they were social, musical, creative, and funny.
Some went to college, some didn’t go right away, and some didn’t go at all, but almost all of them eventually found meaningful relationships and fulfilling professions. They are still great people to be around; they are still full of life, just like when they were young.
My grades were pretty good, but I was an awful test taker. When I took the PSAT my high school guidance counselor told me that my score was “unacceptable” and that I would be unable to handle college coursework. Based on one test, a moment in time, he was determining my educational fate.
This one person’s opinion could have dictated my life’s path if I hadn’t had parents that begged to differ.
I’m almost 40 years old and I am still a poor test taker (too much gray, people…it’s hard for me to find one right answer), but I have pursued numerous degrees and certifications and I can’t remember a time that I haven’t been in school. I am in love with learning and I feel free to do what I love.
I know people who were exceptional test takers who went to the best universities and found high paying/high status jobs, but many of them are doing work they dislike. They feel trapped by their obligation, the money, the amount of time and effort they put into getting where they are now.
They feel disconnected from their families and disconnected from themselves. They talk to me about finding their passion; they talk to me about getting back to what makes them feel good. Perfect grades, the right university and a high paying job are not the essential pathways to a happy life.
As parents we have to wake up and realize when we are defining our children based on their achievements rather than who they are. We have to realize when we are praising them for performing rather than for being good people.
We need to become conscious of what we really want for our children. Is our affection and pride only reserved for academic and extracurricular achievement, or can we begin to see the value in their hobbies, their relationships, and their ability to know and love themselves?
It’s difficult to do this when family, friends, neighbors and institutions are saying differently. It’s difficult to see what is important when we are bombarded with images that tell us that fame, money and power are the only worthy achievements.
But we know better, so it’s time to live and teach what we know. These are our children, the people we love the most, so we need to share the truth.
Educational pursuits are valuable, important, and necessary in our culture, but formal education isn’t enough.
We need our children to understand the importance of self respect, compassion, and creativity. We need to teach them that true happiness is not about a score, a grade, an award or a job; it’s about connection to self, connection to others, and connection to this world that we share.
This blog was originally posted in 2011 and it became a chapter in my book, The Self-Aware Parent, Two.