Can the Good-enough Parent Demand Mastery?

Great vs. Excellent

Last week when I wrote that trying to be a “superior parent” is crazy, I seem to have been like the little boy who said: “The emperor has no clothes.” The idea that if children get only the three things they need (love, respect as a decision maker, and accurate feedback) they will turn out just fine hasn’t been said much. Once said, however, almost everyone nodded, cheered, or breathed a sigh of relief. Striving to be “The Best Parent I Can Be” is driving parents crazy.

What about our children? Should they be striving “to be the best they can be?” We can pick up last week’s conversation where it left off with Wendy Young saying: “We don’t have to be real perfect, we just have to be perfectly real…., which all parlays into REAL opportunities to make mistakes, mess up and move onward and upward. Who could ask for more?” I went along with the sentiment until I realized that the children are asking for more.

Years ago in a conversation with the parents of a troubled teenage boy his father said: “Back when Matt was in seventh grade he said: ‘Dad, you keep telling me: “Just be the best you can be.” Stop it! It’s driving me crazy.’”

“Interesting,” I said.

“What’s that about?” he went on. “I just don’t understand it. I am trying to take the pressure off, but the more I say ‘Just try to do your best,’ the more it seems to put the pressure on.”

When I talked to Matt he said: “What sucks about ‘just do your best’ is that they are saying my best is not really going to be very good.”

When my daughter, Lizzie (who is now an elementary school teacher), was in first grade she came to me with a stack of invitations to her birthday party. The envelope on top had LISA on it. She said: “Dad is this how you spell Liza?”

I said, “Sure.”

Lizzie gave me a look that said: “Don’t bullshit me, Dad.”

It cut the educator in me to the quick. How could I have been so disrespectful of her work? She wants to get it right, and here I am saying that it is okay to spell things any way you want. Sure, for pedagogical reasons we want to allow kids to use kid-spelling on the first draft, but when you go public with something you want it to be, well, perfect.

I said, “No, you spell it L-I-Z-A.”

“Thank you, Dad,” she said.

How to impose standards on kids? By not imposing them. Standards already exist. Kids want to know them more than we want them to. Children want to get it right. They inherently want to be great. However, in a culture which rewards only “number one,” being second best is synonymous with being a loser. I remember watching 10 eight-year-olds in a fifty-yard dash one bright spring day. Alex crossed the finish line, saw that he came in third, collapsed on the ground, and commenced beating it with his feet and fists.

Yes, Alex’s Dad was the type who believed that his role in bringing out the best in his son was to keep holding him to high standards. Alex felt a great deal of pressure to be the best. (Anything less than an “A” was unacceptable.) Today, this is understood by many American parents to be bad parenting, and they do the opposite: something like, “Oh, don’t worry about that, just do the best you can do.”

However, the opposite of something bad is usually no better and often worse. The concept of excellence is killing us. Can our kids be excellent without being in first place? Schools’ awards ceremonies would suggest not. Everyone in America is trying to excel except those who have dropped out of the race. Most of us know that life is not a race, but can’t figure out how to be out of the race without being mediocre. How can we be both happy and successful? How can we let our kids make their own choices, and still hold them to high expectations and learn the joys of mastery? To master the piano they have to practice, but if we make them, it can be demotivating. What’s a good-enough parent to do?

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13 thoughts on “Can the Good-enough Parent Demand Mastery?

  1. Thought provoking, Rick. Why can’t we still help our kids pursue the ‘excellence’ they naturally desire without forcing it down their throats? Why isn’t second place celebrated as well as first? Is it bragging rights for parents? Bragging rights for the child?

    Our concept of ‘excellence’ gets turned into a CONSTANT contest. And when the thrill of victory, or the agony of defeat passes, then we start all over again. When does it end? If we, as parents, can ‘relax’ into it and enjoy the process, then maybe our kids can too. We can teach them that it is all just a fun game, the game of life. If they can master the ups and downs while not losing their passion for life, they can master anything…. and if they don’t master something, it won’t matter. They will have the inner strength to try and try again.

  2. One of the hallmark characteristics of a great educator is the ability to inspire others to think bigger. Rick, you certainly possess that quality in spades!

    I’m not sure what the “real” answer is to all of this, nor am I sure if there is one “right” answer. Mediocrity and apathy clearly do little to propel us forward as a species, nor do perfectionism and unrelenting pressure. Balance, it seems might be a key factor. Still, the mind, when operational, seems to continue to search for more. Some have more inherent drive than others, which may be a reflection of temperament.

    One thing is for sure: in this school of life, we can hopefully squeeze out as much joy as possible out of life’s moments…whether we come in first, second or dead last.

    Does success make us happy or does happiness, in and of itself make us successful? Personally and professionally, it has been my experience that the latter resonates.

    Combining all of that together…being a good-enough parent might well include providing just the right amount of encouragement to help our kids strive for more, coupled with little lessons on embracing each moment…immersing ourselves fully into whatever we seem to be doing at the moment…whether we walk away with the trophy or not. And in such cases, it seems that one can get to a space where they learn to revel in the fact that their functional legs carried them from point A to point B. That’s really quite remarkable when you think about it, isn’t it?

    Sometimes, our personal best isn’t the best of all, but if it’s the best we can do then it’s better than good-enough.

    Keep calm and carry on!

    Wendy @Kidlutions

  3. I think there are two separate questions being asked here. The first has to do with level of achievement. From “good enough” to “excellent” to being (or doing) “the best” (either of a class or one’s personal best), a choice must be made as to which level is sought. Sometimes, with constraints of time, resources and responsibility to other projects, “good enough” is the appropriate level to seek. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with going for “best” in some endeavors; with “excellence” as the default between the other two options.

    As parents and educators, it is our job to give children the tools (and the knowledge to use them) to choose and accomplish the appropriate level of achievement. This brings us to the second part of the question which has to do with the interpersonal dynamic of one person’s influence over another. Whose standard are we going to use and how is it going to be effected? Our approach can range from “stepped back” to “supportive” to “having expectations” to “demanding.” Children vary in their abilities and amounts of ambition and drive, and sometimes higher levels of adult involvement are necessary until the child’s inspiration and motivation are triggered and we can step back from our position of having high expectations or even being demanding when necessary.

  4. My eight year old niece called last night because, in her words, “you are an expert”. She wants to know how to do the Mad Minute math drills in her class as quickly as her classmate who is zooming through the levels faster than she is. Her bottom line questions was, “Do you think flash cards would help me get faster?” As any expert knows a question this complex must be viewed through many lenses. I have to consider all of the information, time of day of the test, sleep and nutrition, quality of tools such as pencils and erasers, I have to consider student processing speed and will likely need a full neuropsych evaluation. The reasons for her low production relative to her speedy classmate are no doubt deep and wide. However, her description of her problem seems complete, her projected solution seems sound and affordable, her motivation is coming from within. I think I will stop by the grocery store and pick up a pack of flash cards in that section across from the baby products. You know that section that has the 2nd Grade Math In 80 Pages or Less. If this kid is smart enough to ask the question (of an expert) she can likely nail these Mad Minutes by rapidly learning her multiplication facts and using a sharper pencil. Pen would likely be faster I’ll find out if there are any rules against using a pen.

  5. From Anonymous (shy person):
    I know you’d like me to comment on the website, but I haven’t yet got the willingness to go public.

    Here’s my thought about the Lisa-Liza spelling story: It’s merely an example of the right-ness of your original three-some, which you failed to follow: Lizzie deserved more respect, i.e. the acknowledgement that she wanted to get it correct, and she needed accurate feedback, i.e. the correct spelling.

    After all, it’s love of learning that is key, not perfection.

    And when a parent says “just do your best,” they’re not showing respect nor giving accurate feedback. My reaction, age 12, would have been, “What’s that meant to mean? I asked you how to do X and you blew me off.” Of course, the only way the child can be content with accurate feedback is if the child knows in his or her core that perfection isn’t a prerequisite to the parent’s love and respect. And I believe that respect is almost as important to the child as love (tho’ of course respect is probably inseparable from honest love).

  6. Thanks for always saying just what needs to be said and taking the pressure off. You are always the best.

  7. Shy person to the words right out of my mouth, or as the Friends would say, “my mind has been spoken.” Conveying societal standards are embedded in accurate feed back and respect. The problem occurs when meeting the (external) standard becomes the ONLY WAY TO BE. Everyday, each 5th through 8th grader at Children’s Day School walks past a sign in the hall that has been there since Rick was Head. It paraphrases Mark Twain’s saying: “I never did trust a man who could only spell a word one way.” (Twain said “give a damn.”) Many times they are on their way to take a spelling test. They get the message – conform to societal standards when it makes sense to do so but don’t let conformity take your creativity away.

  8. First of all the Lisa/Liza discussion. A different way to look at her question might not be academic. What if Lizzie needed to have reinforced the fact that the invitation was truly intended for her and not to another girl in the class named Lisa. When I was that age every class had several girls named Susan, Linda, Judy and Barbara (all named after movie stars popular at that time). When I started Ten Penny Players it was with my colleague Barbara. She changed Barbara to Barbrah so when only first names were used, notes or telephone calls were routed to the right person. In either event acknowledging the fact that the envelope should have been addressed to LIZA satisfied your child.

    From my perspective as the parent of a person with multiple disabilities and decades as a disability rights advocate and art special educator this ‘superior parenting’ and ‘mastery’ stuff is as Rick says ‘crazy talk.’ It was just as crazy as the medical mavens who told me that my son would only live 10 days and that if he survived would be a vegetable … some vegetable, he’s survived 39 corrective surgeries, NYC’s school system … which for special needs and/or minority students is anything but superior, and his mother who also is not perfect. He is 41, a musician and photographer, and in Florida job hunting. Smart move. On Staten Island we had more than 20 inches of snow on my street when my husband and I shoveled this morning.

    I think you folks should lighten up. I suspect that whatever your failings (and we all have them) you’re terrific human beings that love and listen to your children, mates, cats and dogs …particularly listen to your dog. If Chewbacca’s tail goes down when a human approaches I know that this is not someone to whom I should give any attention. Which take me back to your discussions of achievement, mastery and standards.

    At the heart of special education is the use of the Individualized Education Program that when used effectively sets short and long range goals for each person. And this includes setting individualized timetables, placing the children in functional rather than purely chronological groupings, and use of authentic criteria to supplement standardized testing (which I think of as busywork for test prep mavens and teachers that need time away from their students).

    We worked for many years as arts partners to NYC’s superintendency for alternative schools and programs where small classes and individualized instruction was the goal for all students … special needs and general population. Our hope was that each of our students was valued whether they achieved a high school diploma, GED, IEP diploma or expertise in a vocational area.

    As arts educator I also was delighted of course when students created expressive writing and art that we would publish in limited edition, doing our own printing on a photocopier and binding with a hand stapler. Some of our students were virtually illiterate and used their own and peer publications as basel readers. Some of our incarcerated students upon release from jail (or drug programs) were able bring their publications to other school sites or job interviews as proof that they valued learning. Few of our students had parents, much less intact families, but many were parenting.
    And were trying their darnedest despite their challenges to be loving and ‘there’ for their kids.

    As I expect you folks and I try to do and be. Whatever you and I might think of Ms. Chua’s book and parenting style she’s got marketing ability and in this trying economic climate that’s certainly a plus.

  9. I’m Shocked, shocked. There’s humor going on in here. I hope you all saw the big bulge in Suzanne’s cheek made by her tongue as she talked about how challenged she was to meet the educational needs of her niece.

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