As summer comes toward an end and the prospect of the school year looms close, I start to feel a whole host of emotions.
Gratitude for what summer has meant for our family and usually some let-down about what it didn’t mean.
Welcoming some more rhythm in our weeks but lamenting the loss of later bedtimes and relaxed schedules.
This back-to-school season you might be feeling some of these things, too. And like me, as you look ahead to the new year, you’re wondering what kinds of challenges and discoveries await your kids this year. Wondering what will happen in their friendships. Wondering how they will grow—physically, spiritually, and a host of other ways—over the next ten months.
But underneath these questions lies another question we wonder about. It’s a bit more insidious. We don’t say it out loud, but it’s there just under our breath.
We wonder how our kids will perform.
We wonder how they’ll measure up against their peers in class and in sports or the arts. How they’ll take more steps toward the successful adulthood we dream about for them—whether they’re already 18 or still only 8.
These underlying questions lurk beneath the surface like a restless giant. A giant of fear and anxiety. This giant occasionally bothers some parents, and continuously torments others. It’s the reason we push our kids to add one more extracurricular activity, volunteer a few more hours to boost their resume, and take the 7:00 AM “zero period” class each weekday to get a little bit ahead of the curve.
As we head back to school this year, it’s time to name that giant of fear and banish it.
Here are three strategies to help both you and me win over anxiety about how our kids will measure up this year:
1. Challenge “success” as the ultimate goal.
Is success really our biggest hope for our kids, or is there something more? Our society’s definitions of success have driven us to push kids to exhaustion as they struggle to perform at our impossible standards. This “race to nowhere” has been well documented, but the system that drives teenagers to burnout still pervades most communities. And most of us parents are complicit.
The folks at Challenge Success, a Stanford-based group taking aim at the performance-driven culture that leaves high school students “overloaded and underprepared,” offer some helpful tools for parents like us who easily get worked up about achievement, homework, scheduling, and play. Among them:
- Define success on your own terms. Who says it’s about getting into a particular college or achieving a specific career? Instead, what does your family actually value most? What character goals might look like “success” for your child as they become an adult? What practices do you hope they’ve cultivated in their life? What kind of healthy interdependence will they develop in their relationships?
- Maintain play time, down time, and family time. This will—not may, but will—mean saying no to opportunities and activities in order to prevent overscheduling. It also includes unplugging from technology together from time to time and hanging out face to face.
- Allow them space to develop on their own and make mistakes. Today’s kids and teenagers live highly-curated lives under constant watchful supervision. But kids also need to play and work on their own, to take risks and make mistakes, and to build the resilience and creativity that will prepare them for the realities of adulthood.
2. Help them find and use their own sparks (not yours).
While you might have plans for “elite” sports teams (can we please form a universal pact to delete that word from our parenting vocabulary?), private cello lessons, and chess club, your son or daughter may secretly wish they had more time to pursue something else they really care about. Or the same pursuit, just with less pressure.
We’ve shifted toward a specialize-young culture that breeds anxiety from early childhood on. I remember being told that if we didn’t start our first daughter in violin lessons by age four, she’d never catch up. Or that it was foolish for our nine-year-old to try to start playing soccer when most girls her age were already training for particular field positions.
Most kids in the US abandon sports by age thirteen because they’ve been told they’re not among the elite. This contributes to all kinds of identity and performance issues both for the “losers” and the “winners,” as overspecialization leads to increased injuries and burnout rates for kids who play the same sport year-round with little rest. Meanwhile, in most communities—if we look hard enough—we can still find recreational leagues and just-for-fun opportunities to play for the sake of play. And it turns out that when kids pursue the things they love, even just for play, they reap real benefits.
Sometimes we have to admit that our interests are driving the decisions more than our kids’. Take time to explore together what the Search Institute calls “Sparks”—interests that spur engagement and passion in kids. When young people discover and develop sparks that matter to them, and have adults in their lives who support these sparks, the research shows that they tend to thrive in a lot of other areas—yes, including grades. My own kids’ sparks vary from drawing to drums to swimming to soccer, and it’s not hard to see that they light up when I show interest in their sparks. Even, or perhaps especially, when I don’t share that spark myself.
This year, gather your courage and ask your kids whether they really want to do all the things you’re signing them up for, or if other pursuits sound more life-giving. Perhaps even—dare we say it—a break.
3. Ask better questions.
I don’t know about you, but my questions before the start of school often center around logistics—supplies, schedule, clothing, and carpool. Does a six-subject notebook actually exist? Why didn’t you tell me your backpack zipper ripped months ago? How did those shorts get so short all of a sudden?
As our kids get older, they need us to help them reach a more reflective space before they head back to the classrooms and hallways of their new daily routines. That means we have to be able to get into that kind of reflective space ourselves. Our research with families at the Fuller Youth Institute has affirmed the importance of open, supportive conversations between parents and kids into and through the teenage years. They help contribute to relationship warmth, which is also connected with faith that sticks into adulthood.
Take each of your kids for a one-on-one conversation over milkshakes or a long walk and ask a few questions like this:
- What do you hope for this school year? What are a couple of things you’re excited about?
- What is one fear you have as you head back to school?
- How do you want to spend your time outside of school this year? How can we make sure to include some down time and some family time in your schedule?
- What’s one hard thing you want to do this year—inside or outside of school?
- How can I help and support you? In what areas would you rather not have my help?
- What other adults can you go to this year when you have questions or problems you may not want to talk to me about?
- How can I pray for you?
No more measuring up
That four-year-old never started the violin. And you know what? At fifteen, she probably won’t. Turns out her gifting and personality would have made that rail a tough ride, and instead she’s bloomed in all sorts of other ways.
Friends, let’s free ourselves from the fear that our kids won’t measure up. Truth is, they probably won’t. Not to our impossible standards. Not to others’. And hallelujah, that’s good news. Truly good.
What if this year our kids knew they were loved just because we love them?
What if this year our kids knew they were loved just because God loves them—because they bear God’s image?
What if this year our kids knew they were good enough to be who they actually are, not some imagined or idealistic version of themselves?
What if this year our kids knew they were valuable outside of their grades, Instagram followers, trophies, or recitals?
What if this year the challenge wasn’t to measure up, but simply to show up and live their lives—an invitation to be present in all of the heights and depths of this unique year?
This scenario doesn’t have to be a far-fetched dream. Let’s all take a deep breath. School’s almost in.
No measuring required.