Our culture advocates strong parental involvement in pushing our children to ever-greater heights of success in academics, athletics, drama and music, among other things. However, by the law of averages, not every child will achieve greatness—but that doesn’t mean every child is destined to live an unsuccessful life.
“Our current culture seems to me to be a fame culture: via YouTube, blogs, reality talent shows, American Idol, et al, the show-off message rings loud and clear,” says Elizabeth Spencer, a mother of two girls in Battle Creek, Mich. “We have found it best to limit their role of these influences in our family so as not to fill our girls’ minds and hearts with idea that that they, too, should be famous and that if they’re not, they are failures.”
“I do think we have become too focused on performance and have unrealistic expectations for our children,” says Jean Blackmer, publishing manager for MOPS, and the author of Momsense: A Commonsense Guide to Confident Mothering. “Some parents want their child to become exceptional at something versus a child with well-balanced and rounded life experiences.”
“The temptation for parents to buy into the world’s notion of success is nothing new,” says conference speaker and homeschool consultant Kathy Kuhl, who has written Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner.
Viewing Success Through God’s Eyes
One way to refocus our attention from the wrong emphasis on success is to redefine what success looks like. Kuhl recommends enjoying everything we have as a gift from God and that includes talents and abilities. “I think it’s good to remind children that just because you’re on top now, doesn’t mean you’ll be on top later, and the flip side is that just because you’re on the bottom now doesn’t mean you’ll have to stay on the bottom,” she says.
“One of the major problems I see in our culture is that parents are measuring success in the wrong way, such as growing up to have a good job, nice home and family,” says Dave Boehi, senior editor at FamilyLife. “Even Christians put so much effort into the more secular side of success, but the measures of success for our culture don’t always reflect the values we ought to have as believers in Christ.”
Blackmer also points out that parents become tied to their children’s successes or failures too much. “We view those failures as a reflection of our own abilities as a mother or a father, but there has to be a separation because there are two different individuals,” she says. “We need to separate our own identities from our children. I think so many people feel like they have to define their kids now, but we need to remember that God’s view is so different. It’s not the achievement that’s important, but what is learned through successes and failures that creates character.”
How parents talk about and react to their children’s successes and failures can have a big impact on how their children will view success and failure. Boehi, Kuhl and Blackmer all recommend focusing not on the transient successes of this world but on building godly character in our children.
“No matter what skills or talents your children have, the one thing you can do with each child is to build that child’s character, to make them trustworthy, honest, hardworking,” says Boehi.
Curbing our own tendencies as parents for resentment when other children win and our kids don’t also can teach valuable lessons. “We need to draw near to God to learn to be content in our circumstances, and so we can show our children how to be content. We need to enjoy the gifts they do have--that smile, that cheerfulness, that humor, that creativity--whatever other good things we see in them,” says Kuhl.
To Push or Not to Push
Parents need to balance the desire to help a child and the need to step back to allow the child to find his own way. “I think it’s good for parents to find what kids enjoy doing and what they’re good at and to push them a bit to excel in that area, but ultimately, that drive’s got to be within the child,” says Boehi. “In the end, we as parents might know that our child could have done better in a certain area, but we have to accept that our child wasn’t interested enough to push himself.”
“As parents, one of our jobs maybe that doesn’t come naturally is listening and being observant, to really put ourselves in that role as the person who can help our children discover what their passions are,” says Blackmer. She says that giving children different opportunities can help them figure out where their talents or interests lie.
Many experts and other parents tell us that if we push our kids hard enough, they will achieve greatness. As Spencer points out, most people are not “the best” at anything. “I do not want to miss—and I do not want my children to miss—God-given opportunities to do something good just because it is not great,” she says. “My focus as a parent is to help them identity and use those talents to the best of their abilities (without fixating on them) for three main purposes: to shout the name of God, to bless and encourage others, and to find joy.”
Become an Encourager
While parents cannot achieve success for their children or buffer them from failure, they can offer steadfast encouragement. “Our culture is so numbers-oriented,” says Blackmer. “There’s enough pressure on kids already. As parents, we can take pressure off of them. Encourage love of learning versus the grade, stress how fun it is to learn new things and not focus on GPAs. Those kind of pressures build a performance-oriented focus rather than a God-oriented focus.”
Using praise wisely can go a long way to keeping our children on an even keel. “We strive to compliment the effort, not the result. We want to magnify the process, the hard work, the journey, and God’s hand and help in it all,” says Spencer. “And we want to pay attention not just to awards and performances but to the treatment of others.”
“Life is full of disappointments,” says Kuhl. “If your children don’t succeed today, they may succeed at something else.” She suggests encourage kids to enjoy the sport (or other activity) for the exercise, the companionship, the interaction with teammates and the love of the game. “A better way to keep our children healthy is to encourage them to find sports that can become lifelong pleasures,” she says, adding that children also should explore other activities that could become lifelong interests.
The reality is that not every child will be head of the class, captain of the team or first chair in the orchestra. Nor is every kid extremely gifted or talented in one area or another. Helping our children to think rightly of academic, athletic and musical success can be one of the most important parental tasks.
For Kuhl, thinking back on her own struggles as a child and student helps her to manage her expectations. “Trying our hardest does not guarantee we will always succeed, and if we tell our children that, we are setting them up for frustration. We do our best because it honors God and develops our gifts and character. But He doesn’t promise us complete success in every endeavor,” she says.
“We’ve got to help the child develop the right expectation and idea of what success is,” adds Boehi. “There’s some successes that we can achieve that are just not as important as others, that most important things in life are not being great at piano or a particular sport. All those things have a purpose of building character, which is the one thing that we need to focus on with our kids.”
To help parents manage their involvement in their children’s lives, Blackmer uses the analogy of fire safety—stop, drop and roll—when thinking about success or failure. “As parents are faced with issues that challenge us, we should stop and think, ‘What are my real motivations? Is this best for the kids or is this my issue?’ Then drop and pray, asking for wisdom and talking to friends and counselors to get valuable insights before moving forward. Then roll, either by moving forward or by letting the kids take it from here,” she says.
For Spencer, continually asking herself questions about her motivation keeps her expectations in check. “Do I want my daughters to excel to the best of their abilities so that they can show off God’s greatness or so I myself can look great in their shadows?,” she asks. “Keeping myself in check on these heart issues helps to shut out the world’s siren call of it’s all about you.”
Originally posted February 25, 2011.
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired @ Home: The Christian Mother’s Guide to Working From Home. She lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her at http://www.sarahhamaker.com.