“Do the things you always wanted to
Without me there to hold you back; don't think, just do
More than anything I want to see you, girl
Take a glorious bite out of the whole world.”
-Snow Patrol, You Could Be Happy
Lately, I’ve been expanding my knowledge on teens. I’d like to write a book to them, or for their parents—I don’t which quite yet. But first, I’d like to raise one—as in LIFT her to all she is meant to be. And I’m willing to admit some of my own “stuff” is problematic to this goal.
This is my daughter’s first year of high school. While I'd been doing a pretty good job of stepping back to let her soar and stumble in previous years, high school has been another story—and it’s not been a pretty one.
I knew I was in triggering territory within the first few minutes of the parent orientation meeting. In a matter of forty-five minutes, I heard the words GPA, college visits, scholarships, tutoring, dual credit courses, and online grade portal. It was no surprise I came home feeling clingy and controlling, suddenly yearning to micromanage every hair on my daughter’s head.
All of a suddenly, it felt like so much was riding on her decisions and her achievements that there was no room for missteps.
Knowing that was not a healthy feeling, I turned to some trusted sources to calm my angst and enlighten me. As fate would have it, Jessica Lahey, the brilliant author of The Gift of Failure, had a message for me. The fact that I felt highly uncomfortable while reading it clued me in that it was my message to receive.
In the article, Jessica describes an informal survey she does when speaking to middle and high school students nationwide. After asking them to close their eyes, she says the following statements:
Raise your hand if you get paid cash money for good grades.
Raise your hand if you get any material thing in exchange for grades.
And then Jessica gives a third prompt, which she prefaces by saying this one’s tougher to answer and requires thoughtful and honest reflection:
Raise your hand if you truly believe your parents love you more when you bring home high grades, and love you less when you make low ones.
Gulp. Those words felt like a simultaneous gift and punch in the gut. Jessica then shares the startling results:
“Over the past five years, I’ve asked this question to thousands of kids, ages 12 to 18, and the percentages still surprise me. Among middle-school children, about 80 percent believe that, yes, their parents truly love them more when they deliver high grades and less when they make low ones. In high school, the average is a little higher — about 90 percent.”
I tried to continue reading the article, but I got stuck on that passage. I read it over and over, opening myself up to the possibility that my child might raise her hand.
I am quite certain she would.
After acknowledging that hard truth, I continued reading.
Jessica went on to describe a critical concept called outcome love. She quotes Jim Taylor, a psychologist who specializes in sports and parenting, who defines outcome love as, “a transaction in which parents bestow the reward of love in exchange for their children’s success, and withdraw that love as punishment for failures.”
I thought about my distinctly different reactions to my child’s high grades as opposed to her less-than-desirable ones, and I knew that I had work to do.
Naturally, I turned to Google.
“Stop focusing on grades,” I typed hastily.
Article after article confirmed that placing such high value on achievement and outcome (rather than effort) was detrimental to children, leading to discontentment, stress, depression, and negative behaviors. Research encourages parents to relay the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.
Here are two key passages from the articles I read:
“Focusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow.” (source)
“Place the value on your students’ understanding. Use these recurrent assessments as a means for feedback and a way for your students to start to view their learning as a process through which they can practice, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes to improve their understanding.” (source)
I felt certain I could shift my focus from outcome to process, but there was something even more pressing I knew I needed to deal with immediately. I needed to change the initial words I said to my daughter when her school day ends.
Given my new knowledge, I realized my typical line of questioning was sending exactly the message that would make my child raise her hand during Jessica’s talk.
Did you get any tests back?
Any grades today?
How did the quiz go?
What homework do you have tonight?
I thought about how I’d feel if my husband or children were to greet me at the end of each workday with:
How many books did you sell today?
What was the traffic on your website?
How many new subscribers did you get on your blog?
The questions I love most at the end of my day are:
How are you, Rachel?
How are you feeling about things?
I am quite certain my child is no different.
With this new awareness, I immediately stopped asking if she got any grades back the minute she walked in the door. Instead, my greeting addressed her wellbeing – the whole of her.
How are you feeling?
How did your day go?
And once I started paying attention, it was easy to see that immediately after her day is done, she craves quiet, alone time. After greeting her, I waited to converse with her at the dinner table, in her room, or in the car. Yet again, I resisted the urge to talk about grades and other school related topics.
Instead of questioning her, I simply talked to her—
I’d tell her something that happened in the world.
I’d tell her something about my day.
I’d tell her about our cats’ antics or communications I’d had with our friends in Africa.
I’d also ask for her opinion on situations … on recipes… on weekend plans… on fashion… on travel.
And over the past several weeks, something quite hopeful has happened. She’s sharing more with me. She’s smiling more when we are together. I honestly believe she’s breathing easier when I am near.
But here’s the most unexpected part: I am receiving answers to all the school-related questions I used to ask. But instead of me asking, she’s the one bringing them up. She is sharing her assignment grades, including the ones that are not quite where she wants them to be.
And when she does, I am now better prepared to offer a response that does not bestow or withhold love based on outcome. I offer a response that focuses on her understanding of the material… on learning as a process… on the brain as a muscle that can grow with practice and exercise… on mistakes or low grades as a tiny snapshot of where she is right now in her learning process. My responses now emphasize a growth mindset, which gives children the best chance to create a thriving and fulfilling life as an adult. (source)
More often than not, my daughter already has some kind of plan for improvement—and that plan might need tweaking or support, but I am no longer the one dictating and driving that plan. This means there is greater chance that the plan will work, and I am able to point out her efforts as strengths.
But there is more… it was so subtle that I almost missed it.
It was a stack of books on the bedside table in our vacation rental.
Before we’d gone on Fall Break, I’d asked her if she was going to bring her schoolbooks to read on our trip. Her response was, “I do enough reading in school, Mom.”
Instead of disagreeing or pushing my point, I listened to what she was saying and said, “Yes, you deserve a break.”
One night during break, I noticed the books. There were two poetry books, a world geography book, and an inspirational quote book. She’d brought books after all, but they were to read for enjoyment… for enlightenment… for growth…. not for a grade.
I sat on my daughter's bed, and I asked if the break was helping her relax and restore from school.
Her response surprised me. She told me yes and that she’d come to a decision about a male friendship. She could see that she was not being treated in a respectful manner and was distancing herself. Her decision was sound. It was healthy. It was smart. It revealed inherent wisdom that would serve her well as she grows.
This was something she did NOT HAVE to tell me—but she did. And that was significant. I knew my response would be important.
I did not say, “I’m proud of you,” which I now see as an external judgment – a verdict on my child’s performance or behavior.
I said, “You’re listening to your heart, and it knows what you need and deserve. I sure learn a lot from you. Thank you for sharing this with me.”
I could tell by the look on her face that the affirmation meant something.
Suddenly, I knew why I’d been carrying around a quote from Mary Haskell as my latest anchor quote. I’d cried the first time I read it but didn’t know why. It said:
“Nothing you become will disappoint me; I have no preconception that I'd like to see you be or do. I have no desire to forsee you, only to discover you. You can't disappoint me.”― Mary Haskell
Can you imagine being loved this way?
I can. And I’m quite certain the internal struggles I’ve had throughout my life would have been lessened if I had not lived in fear of disappointing people… if I did not base my worth on achievements, positive feedback, and external measures.
So I’ve come to this conclusion:
The opposite of Outcome Love, is Discovery Love.
As as I seek to discover my child—rather than question, monitor, and expect of her—I will also discover myself. I wonder how much peace and fulfillment we might grasp in life when we see it as an opportunity to grow, rather than a list of expectations so high we are constantly left with disappointment.
I’m tired of living in stressful disappointment. I’d much rather live in hopeful discovery.
To help, I have posted this daily intention on my kitchen cabinet where I read it every morning:
Discovery Love Daily Intention
To be less focused on the marks you earn, so I can see the whole of your being.
To be less fixed on letter grades, so I can see the emerging lines of your story.
To be less set on my expectations, so I can see the magnitude of your possibilities.
Your achievements are only a sliver of who you are.
If I focus solely on the sliver,
I miss the highlights.
I miss the big picture.
I miss the tiny lines of poetry you’ve marked in yellow.
I miss the joyful lines around your eyes when you laugh.
As I love you with discovery of who you are,
I will discover love for myself that doesn’t come with conditions.
Let’s breathe easier today, my child.
No longer will we limit our worth
© Rachel Macy Stafford 2018
For visual reminders to focus on meaningful measures of success, please check out these items in the Hands Free Shop: GET OFF THE SCALE manifesto, The Presence Pledge, the ‘COME AS YOU ARE’ metal cuffs, and the collection of 25 little SOUL-BUILDING notes to tuck inside lunch boxes, books, sports bags, and pillow cases.
Please join me at two upcoming speaking events:
- October 20 – The Discovering You Conference sponsored by Mercy Health in Elyria, Ohio. The goal of the event is to ensure that all women know THEY ARE WORTHY, and my talk will address the power of our words to ourselves. Please register soon while there are tickets still available.
- November 14 – SPARK KINDNESS Resilient Parent, Resilient Child Speaker Series in Natick, MA at 7pm. My talk addresses the power of connection and the small changes we can all make to offer more presence, acceptance, and grace to ourselves and our loved ones. This is a free event. Register here.Thank you for your loving presence and support! I cherish you, my friends of the Hands Free Revolution.