Let’s take it down a notch (Teaching our Awesome! Amazing! kids there’s always room for improvement)

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monkey bars

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!

Keep going!

Don’t give up!

Good Try!

…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)


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7 thoughts on “Let’s take it down a notch (Teaching our Awesome! Amazing! kids there’s always room for improvement)”

  1. Yes yes yes! Last year I retrained as a preschool teacher and I’ve been teaching for 3 months so I’m NOT an expert but this is something that my colleagues are trying to teach me…not to praise the product but the process. It’s SO hard – little shining faces asking you if ‘this is good’ and not saying ‘yes it’s beautiful’ but rather ‘Wow, you used five colours’ or ‘I really like how you used that sticker’. I try asking them if THEY like it, are THEY happy with it, do they THINK it’s beautiful as it doesn’t really matter what I think.

    As a runner, I try to focus on this too. I have goals for this year, race times I’d like to reach, but I can’t really control that. What I can control (you know what I mean) is the effort I put in, the commitment, the joy in the training. It’s a good life lesson.

    However, I do think it’s important as a parent that sometimes, you just flipping validate the child. Yes, child of mine, this is beautiful. Our children do sometimes need our wholehearted approval. But I agree that we should try and go beyond that wherever possible.

    Great job, Bronwyn 🙂

    1. Thanks, Cathryn. And yes to the wholehearted approval for our children, too. I think this tension is somehow perfectly resolved in the way God parents us: utter delight in our faithful efforts, unqualified love and acceptance for us, and yet always wanting to coach us towards holiness.

    1. Thanks for these: I remember reading about the research but couldn’t remember whose it was. Listening to that ted talk this weekend 🙂

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  3. I have never been a parent, but this resonated with me in that I am the product of a mother who went a bit too far in her efforts to keep me humble (“Let no man think more highly of himself than he ought”). I learned secondhand that she bragged about me plenty to other people. To my face, however, not only did she never praise me, she did the opposite.

    I am well into the waning years of “middle age” now, and my mother is gone, but I still remember this incident so clearly. I am the only one of 3 children who kept up with their musical instrument, albeit as an amateur. (Mother was a music major and a lover of classical music.) I played for many years in a community concert band, which was really very good for an organization of amateur musicians. After one concert, her only comment was, “I really wish you played in an orchestra instead of a band.”

    I reminded her that the only local orchestra I was qualified to play in was FAR more amateurish than the concert band, and in fact the one concert I played with that group she had found to be embarrassingly bad. (And she was right. It was pretty awful.) I’m a pretty competent amateur player, but if I tried to audition for the local symphony, I’d get laughed out of the room.

    So she bypassed the fact that I actually kept playing my flute as an adult (so she hadn’t wasted her money on lessons or the purchase of my instrument) and went straight to what was for her the overwhelming negative–I didn’t play in a group that played music to HER taste.

    This was probably the last of the “death from a thousand cuts” my mother perpetrated on me. I tried not to let it get to me, but decade after decade of unrelenting negativity does have a cumulative effect. Not too long after this incident, she began to succumb to dementia, and actually turned into a really sweet person. We finally got the loving mother we had always wanted–too bad she had to lose her marbles to become that.

    Parents, I do not envy your balancing act. You walk a fine line between can-do-no-wrong on one side and crushing their spirit on the other.

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