I have had something on my mind lately. It surfaced again today, as I sat having coffee with a good friend, whose son is the same age as my high school senior. As we discussed our two sons and their efforts as they apply to colleges, my friend shared with me a conversation she had with a couple of other parents over the weekend.
It is no secret that the college application process has become quite competitive for kids today. Apparently, the parents she was talking to mentioned how grueling the college application process is also. They shared with her that the Dad wrote a college essay for his son – certain that his son would not get in unless the essay was superb.
Has it really come to this in our world? Parents are writing their children’s college application essays? I just can’t believe it. These parents have graduate degrees in college. (I choose not to disclose their professions). Their child is a good student, also.
Our coffee conversation today led to an area of parenting that I believe needs additional focus. In fact, the conversation took the two of us way back to our kids’ school projects of the early years of elementary school. We reminisced about the line parents walk as they support their children in turning in a good project, without getting overly involved themselves.
Many well meaning parents, with hearts in good places, end up helping their kids to the point that the project is the best because it is no longer the work of a child that age. How can kids compete with adults, at any age? In the case of college applications being written by PHD parents for example? (though the current TV show called “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” diffuses this topic a bit.)
My friend recollected the 4th grade science fair that both our boys were in at their Christian school. It was very evident that some of the projects were over the top in many ways – the display, the content, the reporting, etc. You get the drift. I am talking about situations where the child may not have done all his own work, not jealousy of parents – which is another subject altogether.
I also remembered the Cub Scout Derby Car Races. Oh boy, don’t even get me started. Many well-meaning Dads made sure their sons ended up with a car of their dreams – I’ll bet you thought I meant the child’s dreams. I say this with a smile because many Dads and sons have a good time with this project.
As a parenting coach and a parent, I want to give a shout out to parents everywhere on this topic. I want to give a little nudge, a gentle reminder, to stop these incessant efforts of parents to make their children’s world perfect, sure that if their project isn’t the best they will be affected life long.
Instead, I wish to encourage them to help their children be the best that they can be. This is when we are truly helping our children the most. This means not caving into the desire to make sure your child is the best, does the best, and turns in the best. It is encouraging parents to see that their child’s best is good enough. This helps our children learn that their best efforts are always good enough, even if theirs is not the winner. They will take pride in their work and they should.
Don’t get me wrong. Oh, how we have been caught up in that ourselves as parents, my husband and I. I remember when our oldest had a 1st grade project due for science. We were going to be on a vacation in Florida prior to the project due date. On Sanibel Island, we collected the most wonderful array of shells, which led our son to decide to do his project on the shells. Oh boy – we got them soaked in bleach water and dried before packing for home. We got home and got the poster boards, and the markers out. Boy did we help him as we got library books on shells and even got on the computer to get information. We had even taken pictures of live sea critters that we could not bring home, like a couple of different kinds of crab species, a hermit crab, and a live starfish! SO we helped him add those to his project. By the time he was done with it, he had a fantastic project! It had many different and interesting shells taped and glued on the poster board, with identification labels and other pertinent information for each one.
Why, it was a darn masterpiece! As I think back on that fun and wonderful project we did together, I realize we are guilty as charged. In our zeal, and the fun of the journey together, we got carried away. We crossed the line. I know we had too much of our work in it. Even though I know we did not boss him around about it, or control it exactly, we were far too much of an influence on him. It turned out to be an awesome project – fun for all of us. That would have been fine for a family night activity or something like that. However, since this was for his school project, what could we have done that would have been better?
Actually, we help our children the most when we help them answer their own questions themselves when possible. A good way to do that is to rephrase their question and turn it back over to them in the form of a question. This helps them get clarity, think for themselves and problem solve. For example, in the case of the shell project, if our son did not have a clue where to begin, as a first grader with a pile of shells, and he expressed that, a question along the lines of, “Well, I imagine you want to show the shells to everyone in your class. How do you suppose you could do that?” would be helpful. This allows them to think and create, yet guides them a little. Of course many kids will know exactly what they want to do, from beginning to end. In this case, the ways we can help most are not to edit the project. If they are excited about it and they are happy with it – parents support their children the most by honoring them for who they are as little beings and encouraging them for their own work.
This brings up a situation where parents may chime in a bit. If a parent observes the child has missed the mark pertaining to the directions for the assignment or project, then, by all means, direct your child’s attention to the fact. A good way to do so would be to let them identify how they missed something themselves, by redirecting their attention to the instructions. “Mike, you have worked hard on this, but I am wondering if you have fully completed the assignment, based on the directions you received.”, or “You may want to check the assignment directions again to make sure you are on target”. Sometimes, a child may just want to be done with it. These kids may need to have parents insist they follow all of the instructions and make their best effort, and not accept anything less. These are some ways parents may nurture and grow their children to be people of good character, with good critical thinking skills. Learning to follow directions is important. Parents should be guiding their children in the home in this area.
Parents may be very helpful to their children and their studies. The key is not to be doing their work for them, in any way. It is one thing to help to edit a school report, or a college application. It is another to write some of it for them, or in the case of the parents above – all of it. These are serious life lessons for kids.
The real concern here is the crumbling of integrity and honor in our culture, as parents succumb to climbing over others to get their kids to the top, whether it is a 4th grade science fair or a college application. The obvious question is, “What is this teaching the children about honor, character, and integrity?”
I believe parents need to be encouraged to believe in their children and in God’s plans for them. I would rather have my son submit his own essay for a college application, and get in on his own merits. If he did not get accepted, it would be OK because I believe God has better plans for him anyway. That is what we have taught him all of his life.
I think we need to redefine failure once and for all as a culture. Have you heard the saying that the failure is not in not winning, it is in not trying?
May we focus on helping our kids be their best, not measured against anyone or anything else but themselves. We can do that by accepting them and their work, just the way they are. Even if that means their shell project consists of shells that are glued to the bottom of the inside of a box. (This was a logical way to do it according to our first grader, so the box would catch them if they fell off of the glue, and they would not break then. But oh no, we had to talk him into using poster board, for a better display...) Wishing all parents many boxes of shells! And smiles. And joy in their children’s work.
Lori Jo Kemper is a PCI Certified Parent Coach® and speaker.
Copyright 2006, Lori Jo Kemper, www.TheParentingPath®