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"My Rating Has Dropped!"
"Heís the brightest in his class!"
"Heís been the top goal scorer on his team for 5 years!"
"Isnít she gorgeous - sheís the prettiest girl in her class!"
"I donít care about the 6 Aís - how come you got a B in science?"
"Thank God for Suzie - with all the problems weíve had with Billy, I donít know what weíd do if she wasnít so good!"
Ever wondered what kids make of these kind of statements? How they interpret them? What they allow it to mean about themselves?
A 9 year old boy Iíll call Eric came into my office with his mom one day because heíd been in trouble several times at school over the previous two weeks. Not big trouble. More like normal nine year old boy mischief. He had joined a "club" of other third grader boys and the group had been caught trying to charge another boy an "entry fee" to get into their exclusive club. Another day he and a new friend had teased another child till they were in tears, in yet another episode of "playground politics." Seemingly harmless mischief, yet his parents were fit-to-be-tied.
From his parentís perspective, Eric had always been so good, so bright, kind of a golden-haired boy. Heís mom, with great pride and intensity in her voice, told me in front of Eric, how he was the brightest boy in his class. And that she and his dad were so upset because the trouble with his new friends had caused him to be less motivated about finishing his schoolwork, that he wasnít trying his hardest. And that if his grades continued to slip, heíd have a hard time getting into the competitive school they had their eyes on for him for 7th grade. Whew! It was exhausting for me to hear, the intensity of momís fears. I wondered how it felt for her 9 year old.
Eric initially sat upright in his chair, listening intently to his momís speech. He shared his viewpoint a few times, but was quickly overshadowed by his momís fervor. When she talked about him being the brightest in his class, Ericís shoulders drooped a little. When mom complained that he wasnít trying his hardest, his whole body and spirit slumped in the chair.
"What are you feeling right now, listening to your mom?"
"I donít know, Iíve heard it before."
"You look discouraged right now on the outside. What are you feeling inside?"
"Sad," he said quietly. Tears welled up in his eyes as he sank a little lower in his chair.
"Why sad?" I asked. Then came the pay dirt.
"I feel like my rating has dropped."
Wow! At this point his mom started to cry, and she reached over and held his hand. For the first time that day she was quiet, her fear for his future having been replaced by her love for him in the moment.
When kids hear comments like the ones at the beginning of this article, they interpret them in many ways. But I think the most common way is to see them as pressure. Pressure to not make mistakes. Pressure to be a certain way and to live up to a code of expectations laid out by well meaning parents.
These pressures motivate some kids for a while to try hard, to compete. They very much want their parentís approval. But as they get into middle school age, pleasing their parents becomes less important than what their friends think, and their former motivation now has no power. Weíve seen lots of these bright, former high achievers become unmotivated, do-enough-to-just-get-by teenagers.
Others may continue to push on, working hard to be the best, constantly striving to prove themselves and meet other peopleís high expectations. These high expectations later on become their own measuring sticks. Iíve worked with thousands of unhappy teens and adults who have made it, become successful as far as titles, jobs, income. But theyíre miserable. They canít turn off that never ending tape inside them that says itís never enough; gotta do more; gotta find a new challenge. Constantly restless and empty. I know that feeling myself.
Eric was sad because he felt like he was disappointing his parents letting them down. And he felt like I wonít be loved unless I achieve, unless Iím the best. In reality, he was just going through some normal growing pains. Heíd always been a fairly sedentary kid, preferring to spend time with books or in front of a computer to being outside playing with friends. Intellectually, he was advanced for his age, but he lagged a little behind in his social skills. He had been trying his best at school for 4 years. And his recent mischief was the result of his forays into the world of grade school playground politics. He was learning about making friends, about being a friend, about relationships. Very important stuff for 9 years old. Actually more important than his studies in the long run. Learning that heíd put off in his quest to be the brightest. Eric was trying to find some balance between schoolwork and friends, (not unlike many of your struggles with finding balance between work and home and friends as adults). And he was making some mistakes, as we all doing our learning process.
I know Ericís parents. They have worked very hard to educate themselves about kids and parenting. Theyíve done an awesome job with Eric. And, like many parents today, they got caught up in the current cultural trend that everyone should be an A student, excel at sports, be involved in 30 activities. Yes sir, no room for average today! Every kids needs to be trying their best ALWAYS or they get flak. YUK!
I suggested to Ericís mom that they eliminate words and phrases like best, brightest, we donít care about your grades as long as you try your hardest 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Eric, like most bright kids, loves to learn; loves to meet a challenge head on. And once theyíve mastered the challenge, they can say with pride that "I did it!" Eric needs to be able to look at his parents and see unconditional love and pride. To know he is loved because of who he is, not for what he does. The only rating that Eric needs is his own internal sense of who he is. His own sense of accomplishment.
Thank goodness kids donít give out quarterly report cards on their parents. I might be spending some time in the principalís office!
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