I spent an evening watching kids’ gymnastics classes a while back, and again and again I heard cheers from coaches and parents alike: “great job!” “amazing!” “awesome!” “nailed it!” I came home wondering: for all all my belief in the power of encouragement, have we maybe overdone it a little?
I had a professor at seminary who, on principle, would award a maximum of 99% for tests. Even if you got everything right on a Greek test. When asked about this, he would say “100% is a perfect score and only God is perfect. There’s always room for improvement.”
Now while my gold-star-earning temperament rankled at having a point deducted to make a point, I’ve been thinking about his class and how it relates to parenting. I’m thinking about it because I have children who draw pictures, and attempt cartwheels, and are trying their hand at all sorts of new skills, and their teeny expectant faces: wanting to be awesome! amazing! and nail it! on their first attempt.
I’m realizing that I have a limited vocabulary for acknowledging progress and process in my parenting. I’m reading David Brooks’ (phenomenal) The Road To Character, and digesting what he says about how we develop character: the formation of eulogy virtues (what kind of person we were) as opposed to resumé virtues (what skills you acquired). Central to developing character is how we grapple with our own weaknesses, and how we learn to persevere when confronted by obstacles from within and without.
“While today we tend to tell children how wonderful they are,” Brooks writes, “in those days (100 years ago) parents were more likely to confront children with their own limitations and weaknesses.” Citing Frances Perkins, a society-changer in the early 20th century, as an example, he speaks of how her parents raised her with a “characteristic Yankee toughness”, which “sometimes devolved into frigidity, but sometimes was motivated by and intermixed with a fierce love and tenderness.”
I love my kids, and I want them to develop character and that magical quality of grit: the self-control and tenacity to work at a thing without giving up. I want my parenting to reflect that WHAT you produce is far less important than the PERSON you are in the process, and so I’m consciously wanting to change my encouragement to focus on the process rather than the product.
I want my kids to know that they are loved always and forever, no matter what, but as they learn and experiment I always want them to know that there will also always be room for improvement: A+s aren’t guaranteed (and they aren’t required for acceptance in our family!)
So here’s my brainstormed list of things I’d like to say more to my kids as they tackle life and face their own weaknesses. Rather than flooding them with premature “amazing!” “great jobs!”, I’d like to say more of these:
You worked so hard on that!
That was a solid effort!
I’m proud of you for trying!
You are getting better!
You are making progress!
Your hard work is paying off!
Don’t give up!
…and more in this vein.
As it turns out, we need so much coaching on how to keep at it when the results are far from what we’d like them to be. We need encouragement that the effort matters, regardless of the outcome: particularly because of the humbling and core-strengthening work that sustained effort does in our own souls. This is how we learn our limits. And this is how we learn our strengths. Those we count as the greatest success stories all say the couldn’t have done it unless they also learned how to fail well.
I was at the park yesterday and watched my daughter tackle a series of monkey bars that had bested her until now. She tried, tried, tried, and tried again, but landed on the ground every time. On the tenth time (or was it the twentieth?) she finally got traction and made the aerial leap to the highest part of the bars. I had been watching her battle and, when she finally did it, I was ready to break out the pompoms and pelt her with all the Amazing! Great Jobs! and Awesomes! I could. And in the moment, I did. But once she landed and ran over beaming, I remembered David Brooks and the 99% professor and leaned in to whisper to her: “the thing I’m most proud of is how you tried and didn’t give up. That shows perseverance and character – which are even more amazing to me than monkey bars.”
We are wildly loved.
And yet there’s always room for improvement.
Photo Credit: M01229/Monkey Bars @Begin Park (Flickr Creative Commons)