“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.
Annette Anderson McEachern says
This is a great read Rachel. Thank you. And your daughter is the spitting image of you. Fabulous!
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, Annette, for both loving affirmations! My heart is full!
Wow ! Powerful post! Although, with all your insight, I don’t think your daughter would ever feel as if you loved her more for better grades.
It is a difficult time, though. I like to think out home is all about love (all four of our kids are grown now), but there is also this sense of responsibility and independence that is expected of us. I don’t think of it much. But one daughter just married a guy who didn’t come from that kind of environment, and it is rather jarring — his lack of thinking ahead, his lack of becoming an adult independent of his parents, lots of things.
I’m not a writer, so this may sound jumbled. But I think it is difficult in our society to have it all — to be supportive of your children and make sure they know that you don’t love them more because of good grades. And, yet, to hold them to expectations of doing good in the world and becoming adults. Parenting is NOT easy. I think you are doing a wonderful job at it, and I am thrilled that you are sharing your insights with the world.
Beth Blake says
This is beautiful and though I don’t have a daughter (or a son) at this time, I will treasure these words in my heart until I do. In the mean time, as is so often the case with the words you write, this helps me to speak softly and encourage that young girl inside of me who had so many expectations on her and was and still is terrified of disappointing her parents. I can give that child in myself the type of discovery love I often wish I had. Thank you again for this beautiful gift!
Thank you for this post, I needed this today. My son is a freshman this year as well and with that comes so many changes. I think there is a delicate balance here, and finding that can be tricky. i feel like I am going through as much or more of a transition than he is in many ways – the role of a parent is always changing, but you are so right – our love remains constant, forever.
Ohhh this one hits home. My daughter is a sophomore, and I’ know I’m guilty of putting my high expectations on her shoulders. I’ve written down the Mary Haskell quote, and your words about a low grade being a tiny snapshot of where she is in her learning process. She took the PSAT this morning, and first quarter grades come out next week, so thank you for this perfectly timed message. One question I’m struggling with is how to support and encourage her to reach for her own goals, without putting my own pressure on her. It’s hard to step back, when I see her spending time on her phone, when I know she should be studying for a math test that could prevent her from getting in to National Honor Society with her friends, or from achieving the class rank that she is hoping for… I guess if she doesn’t make it, I need to trust that she will learn from it… And I know I can’t protect her from every disappointment… My goodness, this is a tough one. Thank you for sharing your struggles, and insights, and wisdom. You are a gift to me.
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you for sharing, Kim. Have you read this post of mine? Given what you just shared, I think it will really resonate – https://www.handsfreemama.com/2018/09/06/whats-wonderful-about-a-phone-conquering-heart-led-teen-find-out-for-yourself/
This was so timely. In fact, this article is an answer to a prayer for me. I have an eighteen year old on the cusp of adulthood, and the focus has solely been on getting this or that finished or accomplished. I have been feeling a strong disconnect in our relationship and recently realized just how much I was still micromanaging in a time in her life she should have more freedom. I am so thankful for you, this blog, and God’s hand all over all of this.
Rachel Stafford says
Thank for letting me know, Nekey. You have blessed me in return. Love to you and your daughter who is preparing to soar.
Yes, our love for kids remain same. I really loved it when you said your response does not withhold love based on outcome. I think that is something we all should learn from you to maintain a healthy relationship.
Hello Rachel, I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, and this is the first time for me to actually interact and post a comment. Although I find any of your posts inspiring, this one really touched me. As a kid, I felt my mother’s pressure on grades and school achievements and made it my own, even though I deeply wanted to fight against this identification of myself with my school grades. It’s been many years now, but I still find sometimes hard to separate my intrinsic value as a person from my results.. I tend to always feel this deeper need of always doing something, forgetting how to just BE. Forgetting that my actions are the RESULT of who I am, and not the opposite.
I also have a daughter, a strong-willed 5 year-old .. and I’m struggling to build a deep honest relationship with her NOW, so that she can count on the proper boundaries, values and self-worth’s consciousness when she’s a teenager. Your words sound so true to my ears.. Every day now, I pay attention to ask her after school “How did you feel today? Did you feel good throughout your day?” to muscle my mothering questioning 🙂 I try to comment on her actions, and never on her being.. It is so challenging sometimes to find the right balance as a parent (and as a person too)!
Thank you for your words, you are an example to me.
Rachel Stafford says
I love to hear this, Clio! Thank you so much for taking the time to tell me you are here, reading, and bringing my words to life. I am SO grateful.
This one really hits home. My father paid me and my siblings for grades in elementary school and junior high school and I can affirm that I did feel more “loved” when I brought home straight A’s and cringed when I would see even one “B” on my report card. Of course, all of that was just the symptom of much bigger issues at home. But until I read your blog, I never really put the payment for grades and the whole issue of “conditional love” together. I love how you share your heart so freely and with such vulnerability. You are having an impact on your readers – especially this reader!
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you for sharing this, Denise. We can learn so much from each other. I really appreciate your supportive words, as well.