“You can get all As and still flunk at life.”
From Walker Percy’s Second Coming
I heard it yet again, another mom who is frustrated because her hardworking teen is struggling in a class.
“I’m tired of my kid coming home and telling me she’s stupid,” she says. “She makes great grades, but she’s failing science because it’s really hard for her.”
As moms, we see unvarnished truths. We watch a child’s confidence plummet as they face a major challenge that isn’t in their natural skill set. We know our child’s strengths and weaknesses, and we witness their hard work. While hard work often pays off, there are also times when even the best effort leaves a child hoping to pull off a C.
I believe in education and challenging students. I was once a classroom nerd who got excited about certain courses. Although I had to work hard, my efforts were reflected in my grades. This led me to believe that discipline + effort = desired results.
What I know now, being older and wiser, is that:
- Some personalities are better suited for a classroom than others.
- Some talents can’t be measured or seen in a classroom.
- You can’t predict a student’s potential based on current performance.
- The world is full of successful adults who struggled in some realm of school.
In the real world, people specialize. In any job or career, you don’t have to excel at 8 different subjects because you discover what you’re good at – finance, people, sales, design, food, organization, sports, etc. – and concentrate your efforts there. While students who thrive in a classroom are typically good at staying on a track, entrepreneurs get off traditional tracks. They think outside the box and create new tracks of their own.
I feel for today’s students due to the pressures they face. They’re expected to excel at everything, from sports to English to Biology. And when you live in a bright community, where you’re surrounded by champions with obvious gifts, it’s easy to feel despair when you don’t measure up.
Here’s what students should know: There are many ways to be smart – and school only measures a few of them. According to a Harvard psychologist, human intelligence comes in 8 forms, and the way to be exceptional at something is to understand (and build on) your areas of advantage. The 8 forms include:
- Spatial intelligence (pilot, surgeon, artist, engineer)
- Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (dancer, athlete, builder)
- Musical intelligence (singer, DJ, songwriter)
- Linguistic intelligence (novelist, journalist, editor)
- Logical-mathematical intelligence (scientist, engineer, accountant)
- Interpersonal intelligence (politician, team manager, publicist)
- Intrapersonal intelligence (therapist, psychologist, entrepreneur)
- Naturalistic intelligence (geologist, farmer, florist)
Clearly, the road to success is wide, and if more children and teenagers understood this, they might have their faith in themselves when a struggle manifests.
They might see a weakness as a normal challenge – rather than a defect that will wreck their lives.
As parents, we want our children to become the best version of themselves. We want them to DO their best without them obsessing over BEING the best. So how do we paint the big picture? How do we counter a culture that tells them their best is never enough?
Here are some thoughts.
1. Celebrate a good work ethic. In our home, we emphasize work ethic. I tell my daughters that their work ethic – more than grades – will take them so far in life. Many brilliant people never reach their potential because school was easy for them. They never had to study, and it made them lazy. While grades and achievements certainly open doors, it’s the work ethic students develop as they dig deep and meet challenges that helps them most long-term.
2. Remove the stigma of asking for help. My friend tells her children, “Smart people ask for help.” Many psychologists also say the most important thing your child should know when entering college or the real world is how to ask for help. In high-achieving communities, this goes against the grain, yet it’s a crucial life skill. A child who asks for help with school is more likely to ask for help with higher-stakes problems.
3. Talk about soft skills. I know a coach who tells his team, “A coachable athlete is an employable adult.” Why? Because nobody likes a know-it-all. Even the smartest, most talented human will struggle in life, jobs, and relationships if they sport a bad attitude, act cocky, or refuse instruction and constructive feedback. They sour the mood for everyone and are more trouble than they’re worth.
Some kids’ strengths are hidden gifts like social intelligence, emotional intelligence, humility, kindness, mental toughness, compassion, empathy, character, creativity, a positive attitude, passion, drive, and the ability to resolve conflict, motivate others, network, or solve problems. Many kids will thrive as adults because they’re good at relationships, learn quickly, go above-and-beyond, and are fun on a team. In the real world, personality, teachability, and likeability matter. Soft skills become increasingly important.
4. Thank the teachers who “get” it. A middle school boy was struggling in English. His teacher told him, “I’m not going to let you fail my class. I will meet with you every Tuesday to get your grade up.” This teacher believes in teenagers at all levels of ability, and at an age when most kids feel overlooked, he notices and cares. Rather than let a child fail, he reaches out personally.
Teachers like this boost self-esteem – and make students work harder. When someone believes in you, you don’t want to let them down, and some of my girls’ favorite teachers are the difficult ones who challenge them yet also equip them to meet those challenges.
5. Talk about potential. The bestselling book Mindset is a must-read. It says talent is nice, but it’s just a starting point. People can do far more than first meets the eye, and having a “growth mindset” dramatically impacts success. A growth mindset believes that true potential is unknown because it’s impossible to foresee what may be accomplished with years of passion, toil, training, and good mentors.
Michelangelo saw potential that no one could see. When he looked at a slab of marble, he saw a figure hiding inside who wanted to be set free. His philosophy was to chip away the stone to uncover that hidden figure. “Every block of stone has a statue inside it,” he said, “and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
When God looks at us, he sees that hidden masterpiece. He notices inner potential that isn’t obvious yet. What great parents and great teachers do is also recognize the masterpiece inside every child that’s waiting to be brought to life.
6. Discuss balance and what’s important. Many students today are achievement robots. They’re scheduled within an inch of their lives. This is the first generation of teenagers to be more stressed than their parents – and lonelier than senior citizens.
It begs the question: Is it worth it? Have we rushed our children through their lives, only to wonder where their childhood went?
Many high achievers burn out in college. Having pressed the pedal to the metal since middle school, they feel lost, tired, and unmotivated. Hard work is good, but at every age, we also need room for rest, fun, soul care, self-discovery, and relationships. Thankfully, society is paying attention to mental health. Superstars like Simone Biles have put their wellness ahead of their dreams – and modeled a new way of thinking.
A pastor once said, “Our kids will be successful, but will they be successful at the right things?” While kids need challenges, they never come at the expense of their health or their relationships. The biggest life joys always come through relationships (with God, others, and ourselves) and being successful in this realm trumps any honor.
7. Encourage creativity. Our kids need mental breaks. They need time to relax, get creative, and let their minds wander. Demands, however, make it hard to find quiet, unpressured moments. Creativity comes from slowing down, not keeping a busy pace.
One upside of the quarantine is that it forced us to be still. It inspired many teenagers to learn creative hobbies. My oldest daughter discovered a talent for cakes, and it led to a business. We were blown away by this gift we never knew she had, and I wondered how many other kids have untapped creative talents that don’t manifest at school.
Everyone needs a creative outlet. Whether it’s for fun or turns into a venture, we all benefit from using that side of the brain that taps into our imagination.
8. Share your stories of failure. In his book Late Bloomers:The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard wrote, “The optimism of youth has been warped into a crippling fear of failure.”
It’s true, and I see it often, kids who aim low, don’t try, or can’t handle feedback because perfectionism makes it hard to hear.
As a writer, I had to make friends with failure. I got rejected for 7 years before getting a book published, and it hurt. Today, I’m thankful to share this with my daughters, and I talk openly about my failures – times that I failed to be a good friend, lost my temper, told a lie, hurt someone, made a poor choice, etc. – because I want them to know that failures are our best teachers. The world expects perfection, yet it’s through failure that we gain wisdom and experience the mercy and redemption of God.
Raising kids in an age of superstars can lead many students to underestimate themselves. Even bright ones may fall through the cracks as they get overshadowed by the best.
I know 10th graders who scored a 34 on the ACT taking it cold. I also know students with coveted resumes and acceptance into Ivy Leagues. They are exceptionally bright, and it is pure joy to cheer them on. It is fun to imagine what amazing feats they’ll accomplish in their lifetime.
At the same time, these students are a minority. They’re a small sliver of any grade. And when you also know students with a 4.2 GPA who have never been encouraged by a teacher or recognized at Honors Day, or students with a 3.8 who feel like failures in comparison, our idea of “success” looks myopically small.
It’s easy to cheer for the superstars, but let’s also cheer for the students who work hard with no recognition. Let’s remind our own children — again and again — that there many ways to be smart, many roads to success, and many ways to live to a productive, meaningful life.
The best traits of any child can’t be measured in a classroom. The best gifts a human can offer (i.e. love) won’t show up on a report card. No student should call themselves dumb, and if they do, it’s our job to tell them they’re wrong. It’s our job to praise their efforts and the strengths we see. Every child wants to be good at something, and every child is good something because they have God-given gifts. He created them a purpose only they can serve.
Some kids will thrive early, and others will need more time and help to unlock their ability. Either way, let’s celebrate their best efforts. Let’s applaud them, build confidence, and believe in their potential to surpass expectations – most importantly, their own.
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My new book Love Her Well: 10 Ways to Find Joy and Connection with Your Teenage Daughter is now available, and it’s getting a fantastic response as moms read it and share it with friends. You can find it everywhere books are sold, including Amazon and Audible. What a privilege it’s been to narrate my first book for moms!
My two books for teen girls, 10 Ultimate Truths Girls Should Know and Liked, have been used widely across the U.S. for group studies. For more posts, subscribe to this blog or join me on Facebook, Instagram and the Girl Mom podcast.
Posted by Kari on September 19, 2021