The standardized scale of success these days leaves little room for interpretation. We're judging our kids based on developmental and academic standards that are one-size-fits-some and so while the top kiddos end up touting accolades and praise, the "lagging" majority end up feeling less than stellar and carrying around an I-must-not-be-smart-enough suitcase of crap that's not theirs to carry.
Kids in elementary school are already starting to feel the weight of failure because they're not learning at the pace of the majority. Or because they can't pay attention for long enough stretches. Or because they think school is just plain boring. And who can blame them? There's very little independent learning and a ton of pressure to perform.
It's up to us to change the conversation surrounding success and failure for our kids. And newsflash, y'all--Education is just controlled f*cking up. At least that's what it's supposed to be. You f*cked up again Johnny? Excellent, get back in there and try again kiddo!
Seriously though-- as parents, educators, and community members we need to come to the table for our kids with a different approach to teaching and learning. It starts with us and it looks something like this:
1. Through Gratitude. It's not just a trend, y'all. Maybe you've started your gratitude practice or maybe you're thinking about it. Here's my advice: stop thinking about it and start doing it. Research has just scratched the surface on the positive effects of gratitude on well-being but we do know that it leads to a sense of greater joy and meaning. Here's something else we know:
". . .teens who had high levels of gratitude when entering high school had less negative emotions and depression and more positive emotions, life satisfaction, and happiness four years later when they were finishing high school. They also had more hope and a stronger sense of meaning in life." Source
No matter how we practice gratitude, we can invite our kids to follow alongside us so as they grow it will be second nature for them to invite gratitude into their lives by intentionally focusing on their blessings. The Youth Gratitude Project at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkely is working on ways to bring gratitude into the classroom and there are some schools who are already following suit. Until it becomes commonplace, though, it's up to us to model the practice at home, in our workplaces, and in our communities.
2. Through Resiliency. It's teaching our kids to get back up after they fall. Not to give up. To feel embarrassed or ashamed or less-than but to push on anyway. Resilience comes in all different forms but the most important part is teaching our kids that shame doesn't have to be associated with failure.
Are we punishing our kids for getting a "bad" grade? I know it's a commonplace practice, but what are we actually teaching our kids by punishing them for failing? Remember, if we look at education is controlled failure then why the punishment?
The more constructive and esteem-building solution is to first talk about the failure and then adjust family expectations around it. Sounds easy, sure, but we all know it's not. Family discussions are a complicated dynamic with multiple perspectives that must be taken into account. But the more we talk about instilling a sense of resiliency around failure, the easier it will become.
When we model teaching and learning in this way, we're teaching our kids that the best way to learn is by doing--regardless of the actual outcome. Teaching our kids resilience will boost engagement in school and raise self-confidence--two things that are key in instilling a love of lifelong learning.
3. Through Dreams. The big, seemingly-ridiculous ones. We need to allow our little ones to dream bravely and continue to remind them as they grow what that means. The other day my daughter told me that she's going to marry the Beast (from the Disney classic Beauty & The Beast--if that wasn't obvious). "Oh yeah?", I said. Have at it, sister.
The fact that she's thinking about marrying anything or anyone at three and a half was the most shocking part to me here. And this is why downtime (sans tech and outside influences) is a crucial element to exploring their vibrant imaginations. They need time to craft their little-big dreams and to explore what they can create on their own.
As we grow, we have a tendency to look at what our friends are doing or what society tells us we should do rather than focusing on the dreams we had as kids. To be clear, it's not about asking "What do you want to be when you grow up?". It's actually exactly the opposite. It's giving them space to use their creativity independently and see what they come up with. When we encourage kids to dream with creativity, we instill a sense of wonder and passion-- a fertile foundation for exploring a career (or 20 careers) that will bring them fulfillment and joy.
There's not a one-size-fits-all approach to success. In fact, some would say our success is measured by the amount of joy we feel. If that's true, then what exactly do we want to teach our next generation? How can we teach them to step into their joy? By stepping into ours, that's how.
Here's to teaching by example, always practicing gratitude, being resilient, and dreaming big.