“It's been a long, cold and lonely winter, little darlin'
It feels like years since you've been here.
Here comes the sun, little darlin'
Here comes the sun, I say
It's all right
It's all right.”
–George Harrison, Here Comes the Sun
I have it in me to look over my daughter’s shoulder and make sure she stays on top of her assignments.
I have it in me to make “helpful” suggestions about her work and her athletic performance.
I have it in me to make a big deal over common kid mishaps and mistakes.
I have it in me to expect my daughter to know things she does not yet know.
I have it in me to push her to unreasonable standards.
I have it in me to accept no excuses and power through pain.
I know I have it in me because I feel it; I feel the pressure to achieve and excel every single day. And although my internal pressure has significantly eased through my soul-shifting practices over the years, it still arises from time to time. That pressure can be devastating to live with, and it can ruin a perfectly good life.
I refuse to pass this pressure on to my daughter. I am fully aware that each day I am blessed to be a part of her life is a day I can build her up. I am fully aware that the words I say and the tone I use is likely to become her internal voice. I want it to be affirming and kind.
As my daughter’s gone through her middle school career, I’ve surrendered control as she makes sound decisions for herself about her academics, extracurricular activities, and social life. They are not always the same decisions my inner over-achiever would make, but they are hers. She owns them. She takes responsibility for them. With each stumble or triumph from her decisions, she becomes wiser, stronger, more confident, and more capable.
I try to be a consistent voice of support in my daughter’s life, assuring her to keep listening to that still, small voice inside that has her best interests in mind.
My daughter’s teachers, friends, coaches, and employers have said (and will say) comments, opinions, and suggestions that may or may not have her best interests in mind. That is why it’s crucial for her to develop a strong internal guidance system and positive self-concept that can overpower damaging voices of judgement, condemnation, pressure, and toxicity. My daughter is coming to know her truth, and who she is at her core.
It is why I listen to her opinion when she decides she needs to stay home from practice to study.
It is why I listen to her opinion when she emails her coach to express a concern.
It is why I listen when she talks through what she needs to say to her teacher about a grade.
It is why I listen when she deems she’s done enough for one day.
It is why I listen when she expresses discomfort with a particular person or social gathering.
It is why I listen when she says she is not hungry and does not feel like eating.
It is why I listen when she says she needs sleep or rest.
I am showing trust for my daughter’s inner voice so she can learn to trust it herself.
“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
― David W. Augsburger
That quote is an anchor for me as I raise my daughter in a demanding, competitive, and pressure-filled world.
I remembered this quote the other day when she came home from school visibly upset. When my daughter said her day was “terrible,” I actually sat down. I sat down to non-verbally say to her, “I am here. I am listening.”
And this bright young lady, who normally keeps her emotions in check, released her pain, her stress, her disappointment for a solid forty-five minutes. It did not escape my attention that some of the words she used to describe school expectations were similar to the gut-wrenching truths Patrick Turner shared in his letters to school administration, friends, and family before his death by suicide.
Patrick’s letter to administration began with, “the ongoing stress has been inescapable,” and “putting this much pressure on me has caused me to do what I do.” In the letter to family friends and “whoever reads this,” Patrick wrote: “One slip up makes a kid feel like the smallest person in the world … you are looked at as a loser if you do not go to a certain college or if you get a certain GPA or test score.”
I read through the heartfelt notes friends, family, and strangers from all over the world left for Patrick in the online obituary guestbook. I noticed how many teachers and parents indicated that Patrick’s letters inspired them to talk about the increasing pressure children face in school, to let their kids be kids, and to put more emphasis on empathy and community.
As I looked into my distraught daughter’s eyes, I knew this was an opportunity to ease a stressed-out soul through a supportive response, as Patrick urged us to do. Although I have it in me to be overly concerned with grades, honors classes, and college admissions, I am choosing to be more concerned with the emotional wellbeing and mental health of my child.
I looked into Natalie’s eyes and said, “I love you, and I know you are doing the best you can.”
She released a long-held breath and her eyes thanked me.
I repeated my affirmation once more so that it might stick, so she might say it to herself when the pressure is mounting.
And then I said something I never expected to say to my child who possesses so much promise and potential:
“There is a great, big world outside the walls of your school and academic life where skills like relating, managing, critical thinking, leadership, risk-taking, and initiative are needed … where attributes like compassion, integrity, perseverance, honesty, and ambition will be needed to make important changes and breakthroughs happen in our world. And there you will be, using your skills and your attributes to better the world. I will never let grades, scores, or reports ever let us lose sight of your purpose or potential.”
Average grades do not mean you are an average person.
Below-average grades do not mean you will have a below-average life.
You are more than the marks you receive.
You are more than what you achieved today.
There is more than one path to success and prosperity.
And this girl, who is not much of a hugger, embraced me for so long that I felt her breathing return to normal.
Shortly after our discussion, my daughter and I took a walk. She excitedly talked about the application she was completing for a learning trip to East Africa this summer. I couldn’t help but give thanks for the timing of it all. Yes, this trip that has caused me great angst and fear for months was suddenly bringing me great peace and clarity. Because I know she and I will go there and the children living the Togetherness Center will be drawn to Natalie’s infectious laugh and her gentle ways. I know she will listen to the genocide survivors with the maturity of an adult and what she hears will cause her priorities will shift and her purpose to become evident.
As Natalie talked about the learning trip she hopes to take, I thought to myself, Patrick Turner would celebrate such a decision. In fact, the last words to his family were these wise encouragements:
“Make good decisions, do good for yourself & others, and treat others as you would like to be treated. Most of all HAVE FUN … live like there is no tomorrow.” (source)
Before I mailed Natalie’s completed learning trip application yesterday, I sat down and carefully read through her thoughtful responses. I paused on the question: Do you have any skills that could be useful on this trip? She wrote: “I am a teenager, so I can listen and empower other teens with a personal connection.”
Are there any life aspiration more important than building up other human beings so they believe they are worthy … so they know they matter … so they can overcome hopeless situations?
Such a noble aspiration could potentially save a life.
Such a noble aspiration could potentially change the world.
Our children will better the world, but we must give them a fighting chance.
It’s time to stop prioritizing academic success over health, wellbeing, and happiness … it’s time to stop perpetuating damaging messages that indicate mistakes are weaknesses and failure is the end … it’s time to reject the misguided notion that perfect grades are the only path to a good life.
It is time to look into the eyes of a stressed-out young person and say, “Yes, I see that score, and it does not reflect what you know … who you are … and all that you're going to be.”
I see you, less-than-perfect kid, and I see a perfectly beautiful life ahead.
* Crisis Text Line is the free, nationwide, 24/7 text message service for people in crisis. Anyone in the United States can text 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Counselor.
The parenting style described in this post requires letting go of control and separating our own worth from our children’s success and life choices. This is not easy, but it is possible; I am living proof. I have addressed this process in great detail in my first two bestselling books, Hands Free Mama and Hands Free Life. I also recently launched my first online course called SOUL SHIFT which provides a more guided and supported journey toward loving yourself “as is” so you can love others as they are. Registration for the next session begins in April. Click here to be notified when it opens. Truly profound discoveries and transformations are happening with course members currently taking the class. I hope you will join me in April.
Speaking events: I will be keynoting the 7th Annual Mom, Me, & Tea Fundraising Event for the MCR Foundation for the Prevention of Eating Disorders in Chattanooga, TN on Sunday, March 3. The title of my talk is: “Come As You Are: Being real in a culture of distraction, pressure, & perfection.” I will be speaking to the women in attendance while girls, ages 5-12, will have their own activities. Click here for tickets and more information.
In the spirit of spreading love for Valentine's Day this week, please enjoy free domestic shipping on all items in the Hands Free Shop now through Friday, including the beautiful new ONLY LOVE TODAY print and ultra thin ONLY LOVE TODAY metal cuff. Just use the code: LOVESHIP at checkout. Thank you for your loving support and presence, my friends of the Hands Free Revolution.
Thank you for such a timely and heartfelt message! My 13yo daughter was up until 11:30pm (well past her bedtime) working on a school project that she was unable to finish, not even getting to her other homework. She was a tired, stress-out mess this morning and it broke my heart. I’m looking forward to a conversation tonight reminding her that grades are NOT what makes her amazing. She has a kind, gentle spirit and recently spoke up when a friend was planning to harm herself. She saved a life. She has given that friend a safe place to just be while she is going through counseling and treatment. Your encouraging writings make me even more determined to not let academics and the pressures placed on my child dull the amazing person she is becoming. Thank you 🙂
This is so important! After being homeschooled for grades 1-8, my daughter is now a freshman in high school. She got straight A’s her first semester, and after returning from winter break, her counselor & teachers suggested that she move to honors classes for her 4 core classes. She was excited and proud of herself, and she wanted to make the move. My husband and I were supportive, letting her make the ultimate decision. We signed the forms and she turned them in, and was moved up in 4 of her classes…for one day! She sort of panicked that day after school, expressing doubts & concerns that she hadn’t mentioned previously. I knew that she could handle the workload, and would adjust just fine. But seeing how upset she had gotten, I also knew that it wasn’t worth it! Long story short, we let her decide, and she chose to go back to the regular classes. Still getting all A’s, and planning on an AP class and 2 honors classes next year, but for now, she is where she needs, and wants, to be. All the best to you & your daughter!
This is wonderfully said. I am a therapist and I have seen such an increase in this pressure and the consequences of it. There is definitely a societal shift that has inched its way towards this without us even knowing until ‘suddenly’ anxiety and depression rates in teens are going up. Most parents I work with are so wonderful about trying to ease the pressure and I love that your article reinforces the importance of this and the permission to do so in a culture that values the myths of perfection.
Molly McCallum says
Thanks for this post! I am mom to two very different 11-year-old girls and I can already see the anxiety build as they anticipate the move to middle school. Thier dad and I have never put pressure on them about grades and have made it clear college is not the only path available to them but they still feel the societal expectation. They are plenty hard on themselves without the added fear of disappointing us. To me, it drives home the fact that it’s our job to instill values such as compassion, gratitude, and work ethic but never to ask for perfection.
I love the quote about being heard equating to feeling loved. That’s a really powerful message!
I shared this on my FB page and everyone is really appreciating it! Thank you for starting an important conversation and honoring Patrick Turner!!!
Larque G. says
Thank you. I cannot stop thinking about this message and where we are in the world today. I remember being 13. I remember the pressure and why I prayer to die in my sleep every night. I remember the day I took all those pills. And yet, 30 years later, here I am – so thankful for the time I’ve had. So thankful for my almost 7-year-old daughter. We are pressuring ourselves to meet standards that don’t matter. I am at least. I am certain I have pressured my young daughter to meet standards that don’t matter. Every day I think about what really matters. Time. Love. Forgiveness. I vow to pressure less and love unconditionally more – starting with myself this very instant. I wish I could make everyone read this piece.
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, dearest one. I am so glad you are here … what a beautiful heart you have.
Margie De Pellegrin says
I am a mother of four children,and congratulate you on being a fabulous role model and mother. I drilled into my kids that they are not their “ marks” and never will be, and that the most important thing in life is how they treat people, how to care and lend a hand. I am proud to say they have grown into wonderful humanitarian adults, the youngest being twenty two. They have good jobs,a couple didn’t attend University, but are very happy in chosen profession. They didn’t get good marks all the time but did their best and that’s what counts. I explained the life picture as a jig saw, and every person is a piece and we all have a role to play- whether it’s emptying garbage or being a surgeon, we couldn’t get the full picture without “all” the pieces,everyone is of equal importance whatever their role might be. They understood this and they chose their role. I have been very blessed with my children and I believe our young people will make our world a better place.
Many thanks for your wonderful blogging, so refreshing.xxxxMargie
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you for sharing, Margie, what a meaningful contribution! You are a beautiful soul. This section is just outstanding: “I explained the life picture as a jig saw, and every person is a piece and we all have a role to play- whether it’s emptying garbage or being a surgeon, we couldn’t get the full picture without “all” the pieces,everyone is of equal importance whatever their role might be.”
Hi Rachel, I would love to know more about the Togetherness Center program (I wasn’t able to find in with a Google search). I am looking for something like this for my teenage niece who has many gifts to share and maybe isn’t acknowledged enough for her special talents and abilities. Thank you for any information you can share! I love your weekly insights, they keep me grounded and focused on the good stuff of life.
Rachel Stafford says
Here you go, Kellie! I have gotten to be friends with the founder of this amazing organization and Kelly is truly an angel. Thank you for such kind words. http://www.africanroad.org
Robin Schmidt says
“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
― David W. Augsburger
Rachel – you always KNOW. Thank you for using your God given gift of writing, to touch my soul!!
I have it in me, too. And I hate it. Because I ended up hurting the people I love the most. I’m over-controlling, a helicopter mom, an obssessive-compulsive and an idealist. I had a wake-up call when my daughter told me, “You have this idea of an ideal daughter, and I’m not it.” It broke my heart to pieces. She’s already in her 20s. And I don’t want her to live the rest of her life just to meet my expectations. And I don’t want to make the same mistakes with my teen son. Meditation helps me a lot. Now, I don’t urge them anymore to be perfect. I just want them to be happy. Your post is truly inspiring. Thank you. And your daughter is beautiful.
As someone who survived deep suicidality, I can tell you this perspective may save her life.