On the first day of school Leila’s mother said: “Leila was looking forward to school all summer. Then two nights ago she started getting anxious.”
I know Leila struggles with “giftedness.” Nonetheless, I asked, “What was she anxious about?”
“Will my friends be in my classroom this year?”
All children are completely different, each with their own peculiar set of strengths, weaknesses and things to worry about. However, the number one reason children go to school is to be with other children, and regardless of whether they charge into school on the first day all smiles or cling to their parents’ legs, they are all the same in one major respect: their bottom-line aim is to avoid embarrassment.
And embarrassment is a possibility for each one of them. “Will I say something stupid in opening circle?” “Will I measure up?” “Will anyone like me?” “Am I worthy?”
We humans are social animals. We all want to be worthy and are aware that our weaknesses put us at risk. We are anxious that our vulnerabilities will trip us up. So in most social environments we lead with our strengths, trying to hide our weaknesses. We can expend a great deal of psychic energy trying to hide those weaknesses.
And yet, school is usually designed to make hiding hard. The curriculum seems determined to confront me with what I can’t do. Some teachers focus on my weaknesses. Others try to pretend they don’t exist and focus on my strengths, which only makes me more anxious about my weaknesses. My classmates seem committed to expose anything I am trying to hide.
The only ones who can come out unscathed are those who excel at the few things schools generally value like getting good grades, althletic prowess or popularity. But even those who have mastered the art of hiding their weaknesses come out haunted by those weaknesses and, therefore, more scathed than anyone.
If we really want kids to pour all their psychic energy into their schoolwork, we have to eliminate the elements of school culture that smack of measuring up.
It is possible to do that. Educators have created environments where everyone comes out with a self-image that is neither positive nor negative, but accurate and acceptable. When school is a safe place to be my own weak, weird, unique self, I can apply 100% of myself to the struggle of learning how to face the world with grit and determination. I come out secure in my own unique version of sustainable successfulness, founded on the eternal imperfection of myself and the world. I end up being great.
Some lucky children go to schools where such a culture has been created. But not all schools are like this, and most of us are not lucky enough to choose the ones that are.
What’s a parent to do?
1. Redefine “worthiness.” A parent’s definition of worthiness carries weight. Parents’ values are hardwired into children by the age of 5 and can be reinforced as necessary thereafter. We can establish the expectation that struggle, challenge, mistakes, conflict, disappointment are normal. We can establish effort, resilience, stick-to-itiveness, courage and the strength-of-character-to-admit-you-were-wrong-and-change-your-mind as values.
2. We accomplish this more by what is in our hearts and minds than by didactic teaching, so we have to own this definition of worthiness ourselves. Children pick up the truth about our values more by osmosis and watching us than by recording what we say. They can detect when we are trying to teach them something, and it feels weird when we try too hard. Our words become suspect.
3. It might be good to say something like: “You know, the best World Series baseball players bat around 300; that means that even the best major leaguers get on base less than a third of the time, and they strike out a lot.” (I am sure you can invent better age- and culturally-appropriate sayings of your own.)
4. Believe in reality. We have several things going for us:
a) Children are hardwired for struggle, and
b) Struggle, mistakes, loneliness and conflict are reality. Peace, harmony, success and winning are artificial constructs of our brains.
5. Support children with empathy. Merely being empathetic of a child’s natural tendency to rise to challenge is the main way to strengthen their ability to do it. Say, “I know,” when they tell you how hard it is.
6. Find allies within the school. Leila’s teacher might be thrilled to have a parent who is not on an achievement tear, but a partner in helping her strengthen Leila’s disappointment muscle. What if Leila heard, “School is supposed to be hard. What would be the point of sending you to a place that didn’t challenge you, …and, duh, I believe in you,” both at home and at school?
7. Parents and teachers can rename the game of school from “Maximize Being Right; Hide Being Wrong,” to “Face up to Challenge and Learn.” This is the core concept of Marjie Braun Knudsen’s Brave.
As Brene Brown says in her path-finding TED talk: Courage, Compassion, Connection are what make you worthy, not how often you don’t make mistakes.