MOPS has started again for the fall, which means the continuation of FROM THE CORNER OF MY COUCH, a column I started writing last fall for each MOPS newsletter. Writing this column every two weeks was a huge blessing and a great outlet for me last year – and a reminder to myself that I still have a brain and a big dose of creativity! The ladies in our MOPS group really seemed to like reading it, too, so I’m excited to start another year. I predict that many of the columns I write this year will come from topics I blogged about over the summer. I’m reposting this one here because 1) I haven’t had anything significant to blog about since Monday, and 2) it’s one of my favorite pieces that I’ve ever written. I feel pretty passionately about Doing Hard Things! This repost has been slightly edited for the preschool mom audience. Enjoy…
Way Beyond “Do Your Best”
When I was in sixth grade, I started the school year in Honors Math. Mrs. Mechler. I still remember. She wore more makeup than Tammy Faye Baker. After the first six weeks, I made my first ‘C’ ever in that class. My mother immediately pulled me out and placed me in a “regular” math class.
I’ve heard that each person has several defining moments in her life, and I believe this was one of mine. You can’t handle this. It is more important for you to make good grades than to push yourself and actually learn something hard. And that lesson carried with me throughout my academic career. I didn’t take an Honors English II class in high school because I heard the teacher was too hard, so I took a regular class and made all A’s (would you believe my grammar grades were actually B’s?!?) Somehow I managed to get out of taking Chemistry because I didn’t think I could handle the math, and all those letters on the periodic table of elements just looked too daunting to me. I loved Biology, though, and when I went to register for my first semester of classes at Baylor, I told the adviser I wanted to take College Biology. She gave me a look that quickly dissuaded me, so I signed up for Packard Physics and learned that toilet paper dissolves in water, but Kleenex does not.
I heard a speaker recently say that a child’s “self-esteem” does not come from success but from working hard and attempting difficult tasks, regardless of success. I’m starting to understand why sometimes I feel really stupid and not worth much.
I read a book this summer that changed my perspective: Do Hard Things, by teenage twin brothers Alex and Brett Harris. I picked up this book at the library, and I wish I would have found it twenty years ago. They propose that adolescence is a myth (the term was first coined in the 1940s, and before that, you stepped directly from childhood into adulthood), that we expect too little from teenagers, and they rise to meet the (low) expectations we place on them. They point out great historical figures like George Washington and Clara Barton, who achieved extraordinary accomplishments before they were eighteen because that is what was expected of them. Today we expect young men and women to goof off, party, get into trouble, and scrape their way toward adulthood. We tend to be more proud of what they don’t do (getting into trouble) than the extraordinary things that they should be doing. If we, as parents, raise the bar and expect more from our kids, they will rise to meet and even exceed our expectations.
I would argue that if, as an adult, I raise my expectations of myself, listen intently for the call of God on my life, and strive to do hard things, I too can achieve more and change the world. It’s not too late for me.
But going back to the parenting thing. We’ve faced this recently with our kids. Meghan (age 9) has just started her fourth year at a classical ballet studio with a loving but very tough instructor. She doesn’t let them goof off, and she pushes the girls to do more than they think they can do. Meghan balked for the first year, but she loves it now and has done really well. She came from a studio that was a lot of fun, but she didn’t learn much. Our theory was that if we’re going to spend the money and the time in dance lessons, she needs to be taught correctly and with integrity.
We just put Griffin (age 7) on a select indoor soccer team. His coach is from Ireland and is very, very good – but is really, really…loud. He yells a lot. A lot. He doesn’t give out praise generously – only when it is earned. He’s not going to tell the boys “good job” if they are not doing a good job. Those boys work hard. Oddly enough, they hold the highest respect for their coach, they bust their tails to do more than their best to please him – and they relish his praise. They know that when he gives it, they have earned it. They are genuinely proud of themselves when they please him because they know whatever they have succeeded in doing was really tough.
Even toddlers can benefit from age-appropriate responsibility and challenges. I’m a firm believer in presenting even my youngest son, Nathan (age 3), with not-easy jobs to do and tasks to complete. I love watching his face light up when he exclaims, “I did it!” and “I’m so brave!” He is setting the stage for much greater challenges and accomplishments in the years ahead.
Some parents may want to keep their kids away from such dance instructors and soccer coaches. They may want their kids to get more pats on the back and feel warm fuzzies at every practice. They may fear their children’s psyches being damaged if they or any other adult leader is too hard on their kids.
I say, bring it on.
Don’t misunderstand me. We love and cuddle and praise our kids as much as we can. We tickle and play and laugh and joke around a lot. We affirm them when they learn a new skill or obey without whining (talk about “doing hard things”!) or help with a chore without being asked. We high-five and cheer, and we teach them from an early age to do the same for each other. We focus a lot on praising the effort and persistence: “You didn’t give up! Great job! Aren’t you proud of yourself?” Our home oozes positivity…most days.
But – and I say this not bragging, but with honesty, and you could probably say the same thing about your own – we have smart, talented kids. They have huge potential. They can change the world. They can do great things. They are not going to do those great things if they are content with just “doing their best” and not pushing themselves to try things that are hard and that don’t necessarily come naturally or easily to them. I’m really glad that Griffin is no longer the best player on his soccer team. I’m glad that Meghan is the youngest dancer in her class. The lessons they learn now about working beyond themselves, doing more than is expected of them, stretching themselves to step beyond fear of failure to try something regardless of success – that is what I hope will build strong, confident, world-changing young adults. That is what will tune their ears to the call of God to trust Him in their weakness and inadequacy and watch Him do great things through them.
When that time comes, I will know that I myself have indeed accomplished the greatest, hardest thing.