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How to Set the Bar High Without Teaching That Performance Determines Identity

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!

Crickets chirp from fields of goldenrod when our first grader brings her school folder to the deck. It’s a muggy September evening in western Pennsylvania, and our family clings to the fringes of summer with homework sessions on the deck and evenings spent chasing butterflies through the wildflowers.

I’m expecting a quick math worksheet, but instead, my daughter hands me a foreboding yellow paper containing eight short words: her first spelling list. I wonder how we went from diapers and stroller walks to the big-kid world of spelling tests in what feels like mere minutes.

“Can I please go play in the yard?” the blue-eyed girl begs. Staring at the spelling list, I face an undeniable moment of decision. I can choose to let her frolic wildly among Joe-Pye weed and black-eyed Susans to checking mulch beds for toads and milkweed leaves for butterfly eggs, or I can draw a hard line and tell her we have to study for spelling now.

The perfectionist within me white-knuckles a fleeting sense of control over my child’s life, and most of me wants to tell her we need write our spelling words before we play. But from somewhere deep within, a voice reminds me that I’ve wasted far too much of my own life believing that my performance determines my identity.

How do we, as parents, set the bar high for our children, all the while making it clear that what they can accomplish does not determine who they are?

I want my daughter to know that she is wildly loved by her father and me regardless of her test scores. I also want her to score well on tests and value the priority of hard work. I want her to know that kindness and compassion are more important than worldly success and material possessions, but I also want her to work hard at the tasks that generally result in success and prosperity.

In a split second, I choose to send my child to the fields of wildflowers and postpone spelling words until the dusky hours of evening. As I watch her from the deck, I carefully ponder how we might teach her to pursue brilliance, all the while, understanding that exceptional results in any area of life can never define her. Here are four specific ways to instill a sense of determination without creating a performance-based identity:

Teach excellence instead of perfectionism

My personal struggle with perfectionism has revealed a frustrating reality in my life: Perfection in most areas is unattainable because there is always a step higher. There is always a possibility for a neater house, higher-paying career, leaner figure, and more organized car.

Instead of teaching our kids to pursue perfection, we serve them well when we teach them to pursue excellence. Perfect is defined by a flawless final outcome; excellence is defined by the assurance that we gave it our best shot. A perfect test score is nothing less than 100 percent. An excellent test score might just be a 75 percent that came at a high cost of 100 percent effort.

The bar measures effort, not outcomes

Setting the bar high means we value our kids’ effort more than we value what they produce. A home run that wins the game is great, but a hard-earned single after six straight strikeouts is even better. An award for being the best of the show is exciting, but simply showing up might be the greatest victory of all for the child who struggles with anxiety.

When we set the bar high for our kids, we set it for superior effort, not a worldly standard of superior outcomes.

Praise virtues over talents

A friend of older children once reminded me that she’d rather hear that her child is kind and thoughtful than intelligent and exceptionally gifted. We need to remember that the kind act of sharing the tire swing on the playground speaks more about a child’s heart than a perfect grade on a math exam.

In a recent study, it was found that Emotional Intelligence (the ability to connect and relate to others) is a greater determining factor for success in life than Intelligence Quotient (a score of cognitive ability). Teaching our kids to treat others with kindness might actually determine their future success more than drilling math facts

Cultivate a sense of worth that is unrelated to the opinions of others

Most importantly, our kids need to understand that they are loved simply because they are ours. There is nothing they can do to earn our love. A child with this understanding has a firm foundation beneath his feet as he walks into a daunting and intimidating world.

Set the bar high, parents. Just remember that it is a bar of effort instead of outcomes.

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