Last week I sat at an awards banquet in an audience full of powerful, impactful women from my community. The lists of accolades were astonishing. As the bio of each award winner was read, I sat in awe. I listened as the speaker rattled off achievement after achievement.
They were exactly the kinds of things I had dreamed of for myself when I was in school. I always strived to be the best: to get the best grades, to be a leader, to make an impact. I once joked that my mission in college was to accumulate as many honor cords as I could (only I wasn’t really joking). I thought that’s what success was: measured by the awards you received, the grade point average you achieved, the job you got and the rank you were given.
But as I sat in this awards banquet, I realized that’s not the version of success I wish for my children. Sure, it would be great, but the achievements that stood out to me in this long, long lists of accomplishments were not of that measured variety. It was the success of character they had mastered. Their kindness, good-heartedness, and compassion. Those are the accomplishments I want my boys to accrue, not honor cords.
Even as a toddler, we started the “teaching” process — we had letter books and number cards, activity books and posters, letter magnets and educational DVDs. During summer breaks from preschool I felt the pressure to “homeschool.” To structure our day with learning activities and educational lessons. To make sure he knew his letters and numbers and states and shapes. We worried we weren’t in a good school district and feared for our kids’ educational futures. When other kids knew things and mine didn’t, I wondered why he was behind and questioned whether it was my fault I hadn’t taught him those things. I’d heard all about how much was expected of kids by the time they started kindergarten, and it instilled some sort of obligation in me to make sure my kid wouldn’t be one of the ones left behind.
But as my son got older and I became more confident in my ability to parent, I realized that these are not the things that matter and certainly not at such a young age. There is absolutely no relevancy as to whether he knows his letters and numbers and what age he learns to read. Flashcards turned into pictures we could use for imaginative play instead of education. Activity books became pages for coloring and scribbling to his heart’s desire, regardless of what was on the page. Play dough was simply for play, not a tool to teach a hidden lesson.
The funny thing is, when I stopped worrying about what he was learning, his knowledge exploded. Suddenly he was repeating letter sounds to me and asking how to spell things. He asked questions about things I didn’t know the answer to and was never satisfied with a simple answer. His curiosity led the way and it was evident just how much he was learning and retaining without me trying to “teach” him anything. I’d learned an important lesson myself, and I’m glad I learned it while he was still little. Life isn’t about how smart you are and how well you do in school. You don’t need to excel in kindergarten so you can ace your SATs and get into a good college and get a fancy degree. All those things are fine, but they have little to do with what kind of person you are and what kind of life you lead.
As I sat listening to those speeches, the things that normally would have stood out to me — the big degrees and high honors and accolades — faded into the background as I imagined someone giving a speech about my kids when they grew up. As a mom, the things that I’ll be the most proud to hear are those that speak about their character. The things that can’t be measured or tested or ranked. That they were a good person; that they went out of their way to help somebody else; that they thought of others instead of themselves.
We worry so much about how well our kids will do in school so they can achieve great things, but when we look deeper, aren’t those things we want simply because we want our kids to lead happy lives? A diploma or an important job with a big salary is no guarantee of happiness and life satisfaction. I know there will be plenty of people in my kids’ lives that will educate them about matters like history, mathematics, and physics, but I’ve learned that doesn’t need to be me, and if they’re not interested, that’s OK too.
It’s a lesson I’ve needed to learn for myself as a mom too: that success isn’t a tangible thing you can hold in your hands and weigh and measure. As small as it sounds, success is about how happy you are, not your paycheck or job title. I want them to stand out from a crowd based on their character and inherent goodness, not based on a series of checkmarks on a resume. What it comes down to is simply that I want my kids, more than anything, to grow up to lead happy, compassionate, fulfilled lives. And more than letters and numbers and all things school, it’s up to me to show them the way.More On