After going through infancy and toddlerhood and a rather rocky preschool period with my first two boys, I experienced a steady increase in parental self-confidence.
Seeing my sons thrive and grow and, yes, learn to fall asleep on their own despite any missteps I might have made in those early years helped me to realize that there really are many ways to raise great kids, and that what matters in the end is the big picture – not whether I get every little detail “right.”
But now that I’ve got two teenagers in the house – Isaac, 13, and Jacob, 15 – I admit that some of that confidence has been shaken.
Sometimes I find myself second-guessing my values and choices, much the way I did when they were six months old. I find myself looking at the decisions they make, and wondering how much the not-so-great ones reflect on me and my parenting style.
Mostly I find myself in the uncomfortable position of, once again, worrying about doing it right.
Doing school “right.” Parenting teenagers “right.” Raising productive members of society “right”.
But somehow the choices I’m faced with now seem more fraught than they ever did when I was choosing between cloth and disposable diapers. Because what my sons have entered now is a period of years that will directly affect that nebulous quality of life that we call “success.”
Which raises the question: what, exactly, is success?
The older my kids get, the more I feel that definition – according to the rest of the world, anyway – is wrapped up in school, grades, and achievement.
And I’m just not sure it’s a view I can completely buy into.
It’s not that I think academic achievement is unimportant. School is, after all, my kids’ “job.” They spent the majority of their waking hours either in a school building, or at home dealing with homework. Their performances now will affect the college they might be able to attend, either due to admissions criteria or the chances of getting scholarship money. Yes, what they are doing right now matters.
But at the end of the day – or should I say, at the end of this decade of their lives - how much will it matter? And to what lengths should I go to make sure they get the grades, ace the tests, nab the resume-impressive opportunities?
And – if I’m really honest – how much of me cares about these grades and performance because I actually think they are what will bring my kids happiness and success later in life, and how much is it more that I’m worried about “what other people will think” if my kids don’t perform?
While I of course want my kids to do well in school, to achieve, and have all the options in the world available to them, the older they – and I – get, the more I realize that their success in high school is not how I want to define their success as human beings. Nor how I want them to feel defined.
That’s a controversial position to take. My boys attend a public school system with high academic standards. Grades and tests and what college you get into are a big deal here. The 8th grade awards banquet is like a pageant of adolescent excellence. I can only imagine what’s in store for me as Jacob (a freshman) reaches the upper grades.
And of course I want my kids to do well. To try. To know the satisfaction of reaching a goal or making the honor roll.
But when I think about how all-important those GPAs and test scores and college applications are supposed to be in the life of a mom to teens, I’m just not convinced. Not convinced that better grades equal more success in life. Not convinced that getting into a “better” college means you’ll be richer down the road. Not even a little bit convinced that being richer down the road would equal being happier, either.
The more I am on this earth, the more I think we’re here to experience what it has to offer, to get to know the people we share it with. I believe we do that through learning. But learning is not the same thing as proving you’ve learned.
Not every kid is ready to take the world by storm at the age of 14 or 15 or 16. Not every kid is able, ready, or willing to “apply himself” between his freshman and senior years, as much potential as the rest of us might all see in him.
Some teens are immature, some are disorganized. Some are late bloomers – I’m a great example of somebody who fumbled through my teens and early 20s, not hitting my stride until I was well into my third decade of life. Heck, I never even finished college, and yet I consider myself very happy and pretty successful, as my personal definition of success goes.
Look at today’s kids. They are already smarter than us – not wiser, no, but smarter – in so many ways. How will they harness the information they’re constantly swimming in? How do we teach them to use it for good, to innovate for the right reasons, to be thoughtful and kind and not just smart?
Is it possible that the way we have traditionally measured and judged human achievement and success is not only hopelessly outdated, but was inaccurate to begin with?
I think it’s our job as parents, as a society, to redefine what success means. To reward innovation and creativity and kindness and optimism and the willingness to try just as much as we reward getting the right answers on a test. To recognize – truly recognize – kids for their different strengths and talents.
To acknowledge that the path to success does not look the same for every young adult, and very often does not include a linear path from high school to college to chosen career.
I want my kids to succeed. But success means so much more to me than A’s and B’s on a report card or numbers on a test. And I think it’s time I was bolder in making that statement, right out loud.
Because the last message I want my teens to pick up on is that they are somehow doomed or “less than” because they have a less-than-dazzling high school performance.
We all know examples of successful people who had so-so high school careers. And we all know examples of people who excelled in school and are now miserable, broke or underemployed.
So then, what is success? I believe it’s rooted in having the sort of tenacity and resiliency that allows a person to pick up and try again, no matter how many times they fail or fall down. A network of loved ones who will offer support and encouragement when things don’t go well and a cheering section when they do. And the optimism and imagination to see that there is more to life just around the next bend in the road.
That is my personal definition of success. And if my boys achieve that, I’ll be very happy regardless of their final GPA or which college they get into…or don’t.