Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Stop Straight "A" Stress: Make Mistakes!

This is the advice that has been heard to resonate throughout our home of late between my son, who is 8, my husband and I. The message is very clear: enjoy the process, do your best, and feel good about learning a valuable life lesson and remember,  there is no such thing as perfect!

Over the years we have watched our son struggle to be perfect with his school work, his creative pursuits and sports activities. We had our suspicions that he was perfection oriented from the time he started walking, and had those thoughts validated when he entered first grade. His expectation of himself did not match his body and minds natural timing and this caused him much distress.

Case in point: We read to our son voraciously from the time he was 6 months old. Our home is a haven for books of all kinds and since we both love to read, we had hoped our son would feel the same. Now, while he adored being read to, he expressed no interest in wanting to actually read the words himself. So we gave him the space needed to develop this skill in his own time, as every child is wisely taught to read in school at pace that is just right for them. So, as hard as it was for us to do, we did not succumb to the pressure watching other parents push so hard to have their kids reading by kindergarten.   In fact, we saw many of these early readers struggle with  reading comprehension issues as they progressed along in school.

Our son came home weeping one day from 1st grade just after the start of the school year. It turned out that there was a boy in his class who could read books far beyond his young age. Something our son interpreted as a sign of deficiency in himself. This was an eye opening day for us as parents as we became aware of how much our son was hard-wired to gauge his success in life against the unrealistic levels of performance of others. We started to notice more and more as the year progressed, that our son was struggling with the ideal that in order to do well at school, he needed to be "the best" or nothing else would do. So tantrums, frustration and anger were commonplace in his homework and creative pursuits.

A funny thing happened. Rather then us striving to help him reach his burgeoning over achieving nature, and perfection  oriented tendencies in the pursuit of all things academic, we started to downplay "grades", and point out why learning from mistakes would teach him far more in life.

Did he get this approach of ours? Absolutely not! He argued with us and continued to struggle for most of first grade, and a bit less then half of second grade. We realize a large part of his inner struggle was due to his developing emotional maturity, so while it was identifiable it did not make it any easier. We sensed his inner turmoil at what he deemed as letting himself down and thinking his skill was not the best unless his papers had no errors on them. (It is important to note here, that a large portion of his class and homework papers were indeed returned with no mistakes, but he would manage to see himself as a failure when those few with errors would come home.)

Now, enter 3rd grade and for the first time our efforts are starting to pay off. He is an outstanding reader who, most importantly,  loves to read. His confidence is soaring, but so is his understanding of the value learned in making mistakes. Although there are still hiccups along the way.  He struggles still with this need to be perfect, but it is rearing its proverbial ugly head less and less. He is not given letter grades in his school district, which is truly a blessing for over achieving kids like my son. He will be graded once he reaches 5th grade, so we know this will potentially be a difficult transition period for him. We will wait and see though, as perhaps the seeds we have planted into the mind of this very intelligent little boy will take root.

In the meantime, our hard work has truly paid off. He entered a science competition at school where he was excited to come up with an idea that encapsulated his fun side, while giving him a chance to show his creativity. The entire time, we kept stressing that the point of entering was NOT to win but to enjoy the process of making the piece. When his teacher "graded" him on a scale of one to 4, 4 being the highest in terms of effort, 3 of the 4 categories were scored at 4's and one at a 2. He sat in the car on the way home from school telling me in a very excited manner that he was not disappointed about the "2"  at all. He was so confident and happy to see that something he loved doing was appreciated and he felt that he had done an excellent job, despite it not "being perfect." Bravo!

I learned this many years ago the hard way: "no one is out there giving you "A's" once you're out of school." So if you are the person who needed to  strive for "A's as a sign of your "success" in life then you might just be plagued with an inability to admit you are wrong, feelings of unworthiness when you are told you need to improve, or constantly seeking approval from others to make you feel good about yourself. Kids who strive for top grades as a means to validate themselves as people can find themselves experiencing depression, anxiety and self esteem issues, both as kids and later in life.

Try this: pay attention next time someone asks you how well your children are doing in school. Pause for a moment to see how quickly your mind seeks to answer with a letter grade or grades as though this is the only benchmark of success and a sign of your own success as parent. Teaching our kids to enjoy the process, and down play the importance of letter grades and "perfect" assignments, starts with us. It takes courage to do this though since you may have to let go of some really long standing ideas of what it means to be a "good" student.

Tell them to make mistakes and to not be afraid to laugh at themselves now and again when they do mess up.  This is a far more valuable lesson in life then any grade could possibly be! You are not a letter grade and neither should they be described as one. Plus, guess what? They really DO learn more in life from making mistakes and will  grow up to be more accepting, adaptable and able to deal with change.

Please note: I could not have done this on my own without the help of three books that were invaluable resources. First, and foremost though, I needed to learn how to recognize and "let go" of my own perfectionist driven tendencies in order to help our son develop a healthy perspective on his. They are:

Free Our Families from Perfectionism by Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D.
Letting Go of Perfect: Overcoming Perfectionism in Kids by Jill L. Adelson Ph.D. and Hope E. Wilson, Ph.D.
Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn

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