When I ask parents this question, the most common response
is: I just want my kids to be happy. This is great
in concept, but what does this really mean?
Be honest - what does happiness really mean to you? Do you
want your children to work super hard so they are the smartest in
class? Do you want them to constantly practice their sport so
they are the best athlete? Do you want your children to have
the best grades and test scores so they can go to the best
university? Do you want your children to be powerful, rich
I think we have confused happiness with overachieving,
competition, and being the best. These concepts are no longer
in balance in our culture; they have become the norm rather than
the extreme. We are quickly losing sight of what kids really
need to live full and meaningful lives.
And the crazy thing is that it's pretty simple - kids just need
to be kids. They need time and space to play, dream, and be
creative. Not just in an art class where teachers are telling
them what to do or make, but open-ended time and space to be messy,
dirty, crazy creative.
They also need downtime so they can dive into their imagination
(the best imaginative play is often preceded by boredom).
Children need to be silly, loud, and expansive, and they need time
away from television and structured activities so they are free to
tap into their own vision, thoughts, and dreams.
Yes, children need to learn how to read, write, and do math, but
this kind of intelligence will come with time and practice.
With educational and parental support they will get it - it may not
be in exact alignment with the school's schedule, or it may be at a
different pace than their older sister or the kid they sit next to,
but they will get it.
More important, we need to focus on our children's emotional
intelligence - they need to know how to be with people, how to
take responsibility, how to compromise, how to handle challenging
situations, and how to give back to a community.
As my girls get older I couldn't care less if they are smartest
ones in their classroom. I just want them to be comfortable
in the classroom. I want them to enjoy learning, I want them
to enjoy their friendships, and I want them to discover tools to
deal with challenging academic or social experiences.
I want them to value knowledge and stay curious. I want
them to work with partners and groups so they know how to work in a
team. I want them to trust their instincts and understand
that there are many definitions of the word "smart".
After screening Race to
Nowhere the other night, I found myself very
emotional, almost in pain about what is reflected in this
documentary. My hopes and dreams for my children's education
are at risk in a system that is solely focused on test scores and
The movie showed wonderful teachers leaving the profession
because they were expected to only teach to a test, and it shared
stories of children whose stress levels were so high they wanted to
leave school altogether, harm themselves physically with drugs or
sleep deprivation, or even worse, take their own lives.
Why do they want to do this? Because of one test, one
class, one grade, or one non-acceptance letter into a premier
I loved college, I highly recommend the experience, but not so
much that I would let my children harm themselves to get in -
staying up all night to study, taking other people's pills to stay
focused, or completely losing themselves so they can please
others. This is not my definition of success.
I expect my children to go to school, do their best and ask for
help when they need it.
I also expect my children to play, have a hobby, go to the park,
and eat dinner with the family. I know for sure that they are
not a test score or a grade; that is just one very small piece of
their bigger self. I can guarantee that class rank will not
dictate their future happiness.
Some of my favorite people in the world were not the best
students. Their grades were fair, but their lives were full -
they were social, musical, creative, and funny.
Some went to college, some didn't go right away, and some didn't
go at all, but almost all of them eventually found meaningful
relationships and fulfilling professions. They are still
great people to be around; they are still full of life, just like
when they were young.
My grades were pretty good, but I was an awful test taker.
When I took the PSAT my high school guidance counselor told me that
my score was "unacceptable" and that I would be unable to handle
college coursework. Based on one test, a moment in time, he
was determining my educational fate.
This one person's opinion could have dictated my life's path if
I hadn't had parents that begged to differ.
I'm almost 40 years old and I am still a poor test taker (too
much gray, people…it's hard for me to find one right answer), but I
have pursued numerous degrees and certifications and I can't
remember a time that I haven't been in school. I am in love
with learning and I feel free to do what I love.
I know people who were exceptional test takers who went to the
best universities and found high paying/high status jobs, but many
of them are doing work they dislike. They feel trapped by
their obligation, the money, the amount of time and effort they put
into getting where they are now.
They feel disconnected from their families and disconnected from
themselves. They talk to me about finding their passion; they
talk to me about getting back to what makes them feel good.
Perfect grades, the right university and a high paying job are not
the essential pathways to a happy life.
As parents we have to wake up and realize when we are defining
our children based on their achievements rather than who they
are. We have to realize when we are praising them for
performing rather than for being good people.
We need to become conscious of what we really want for our
children. Is our affection and pride only reserved for
academic and extracurricular achievement, or can we begin to see
the value in their hobbies, their relationships, and their ability
to know and love themselves?
It's difficult to do this when family, friends, neighbors and
institutions are saying differently. It's difficult to see
what is important when we are bombarded with images that tell us
that fame, money and power are the only worthy achievements.
But we know better, so it's time to live and teach what we
know. These are our children, the people we love the most, so
we need to share the truth.
Educational pursuits are valuable, important, and necessary in
our culture, but formal education isn't enough.
We need our children to understand the importance of self
respect, compassion, and creativity. We need to teach them
that true happiness is not about a score, a grade, an award or a
job; it's about connection to self, connection to others, and
connection to this world that we share.
Cathy Adams is a certified parenting coach, yoga instructor and mother to three girls.
See more of Cathy's stories here.
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