How do we define success? Is it making money, moving up in your career, having good relationships, enjoying your leisure time? We all define success in different ways. Some of us are satisfied with what we have, and others are always striving for the next thing. We want our children to be successful too, and we know that doing well in school will open more doors for them. How do we help them strive for the next level without being too stressed out? It’s all about finding a comfortable work/life balance. And to grow, you usually need to occasionally leave your comfort zone.
While many of us are deemed successful by outside observers, each of us has our own internal opinion of how successful we really are. When it comes to school, many students who get decent or even excellent grades are not necessarily doing their best. Others seem to be in overdrive. As a parent, you can go in either direction. 1. “I don’t think you are trying hard/doing your your best.” You got through that assignment awfully quickly.” 2. You have spent too much time on this. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Take a break and get some exercise.” In my experience as a parent, it doesn’t matter much what you say because the perception of your child is more consequential. For some, not doing your best, but doing just enough allows more time for more enjoyable activities. For others, striving for perfection takes more time but can bring a feeling of mastery and satisfaction. Being closer to perfection but never there can bring satisfaction from a job well done or frustration that you couldn’t get there. From a parent looking in, it is challenging to know how your child is feeling and more challenging to help him or her reach mastery but not perfection.
In their book The Self-Driven Child, William Stixrud and Ned Johnson wrote about how to help children get more sense of control over their lives and how to help kids increase their motivation by fostering their own inner drive. One section of the book I love is the part about flow. “When kids work hard at something they love and find challenging, they enter a state of what’s come to be called ‘flow,’ where time passes quickly and their attention is completely engaged, but they’re not stressed.” Stixrud and Johnson later describe a tennis metaphor. It is boring to play someone less skilled than you, frustrating to play against someone more skilled, but you find your flow when playing against a partner who is well matched. These “flow” experiences naturally come from an activity that you are passionate about, such as playing a sport or musical instrument, drawing, or playing a game. “So when you see an eight-year-old highly focused on building a Lego castle, lips pressed in concentration, what she is actually doing is getting her brain used to being motivated.”
After experiencing “flow” with extracurricular activities, students can reach a level of flow in their schoolwork as well. This is when it is at least a little bit interesting, can be seen as an important skill to have for life, and is not too easy or too hard. While your children are going to school online, you can observe them to see if they are in a state of flow or frustration. Are they making connections and deriving meaning from their lessons? If they show interest in a topic that they are learning, you can discuss that topic and help find more information. Does a teacher assign long term projects? Instead of viewing them as thorns, you can view them as enrichment. Many of these projects involve creativity and memorable experiences that help brains develop. Your kids may need help with these projects, such as using a calendar to break down tasks into manageable chunks.
Is some of the work too hard? The resulting frustration can overshadow the subjects that are interesting and going well. It is important to offer support before any subject is out of control.
Hang onto the successes. When your child does well, discuss the feeling of accomplishment from a project or test well done. When your child tells you about something interesting he has learned, ask him to tell you all about it. You can learn something too and then discuss it. “Wow, this is so interesting. Let’s research and learn more about it.” “That interview is very insightful.” “That poster is so creative.” “You did such a great job adding double digit numbers. I wonder if you could add bigger numbers.”
Does your child show interest in a particular topic? Buy or borrow books about it. Always encourage and participate in reading for pleasure. Watch the news and educational TV shows, and discuss them. There are so many ways to strive for the next level of learning and accomplishment. Life is more interesting when you are learning new things. During this time of a pandemic, when we are limited to time indoors with mostly our immediate family, we need to find enrichment in our homes. Luckily, we have the internet, quality TV programs, a tremendous availability of books, magazines, and newspapers that you can read instantly, and of course, Facetime and Zoom. The possibilities are endless.