Pressing Children to Achieve — For Their Sake or For Our Own?

Pressing Children to Achieve — For Their Sake or For Our Own? June 23, 2011

An interesting story appeared today’s New York Daily News about a 13-year-old child prodigy who began reading at 2, writing poetry at 3, and is now bound for college at UConn.  Which raises the question: what kind of slacker is she that she couldn’t get into a better school?

Just kidding, just kidding.  An impressive girl, and a homeschooler to boot.  I’ve known children who skipped multiple grades, and in those cases I thought it had much more to do with the ego of the parents than with the best interest of the child.  But here’s how Autumn’s father Ashante explains himself:

“What she’s doing is groundbreaking but this is not about vanity,” he said. “It’s about setting the tone for other black and Latino children who will come behind her. They’re always being told they are underachievers. We want to show this can be done.”

Got that?  He’s doing it for the children.  The other children.  To prove that African-American and Latino children are not under-achievers.  Or something.  It’s about overcoming racism! — or at least the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Autumn Ashante is bound for UConn
Listen, I have no desire to judge this father.  For one thing: it is lovely to see a beaming African-American girl in the paper for her extraordinary intellectual and academic achievements.  Even I cannot suppress a “You go, girl!” moment.  For another, my many, many years of parenting (more than two, at last count) have taught me that there are few hard-and-fast rules that apply for every child.  Children’s personalities vary so dramatically that we should beware assuming that worked for us will work for others, or what works for others will work for us.  Parents too often judge one another on the basis of their own limited experience.  But I do want to ask: How do we know when we’re pressing our children to achieve for their own good, and when we’re pressing them to achieve something because it strokes our parental vanity?  Here are some signs that your parental ego might be getting out of control:
  1. Was it your child’s idea to pursue this goal?  Or was it something that you, overtly or covertly, foisted upon her?  Are you or your child more enthusiastic about it?
  2. Does the child often complain about the work it takes to achieve this goal, or express that she doesn’t really care whether she reaches the goal anyway?  I’m not of the opinion that parents should instantly let children quit anything they want to quit, even when it comes to sports or musical instruments.  You’ve seen much more of life than your children, and you’re their guide from further down the path.  But, if the child is consistently talking about quitting — then there’s valid reason for concern.  Does your child (still) share your dream of achieving that goal?
  3. Do you find yourself boasting about your child frequently to other parents, especially about this goal?  If you find you can barely keep yourself from telling everyone you meet about what your child is accomplishing, then your parental pride might be getting out of control.
  4. Consider the set of things, prior to the pursuit of this goal, that you would have said you wanted for your children.  Time to play and daydream.  Time to develop socially with friends.  Quality time with the rest of the family.  Do you find yourself minimizing the importance of things you once would have maximized?
  5. Have you communicated clearly to your child that you will love her regardless of whether she achieves this goal, and (if appropriate) have you communicated that she is free to walk away from it?
  6. Time in prayer and self-examination will be invaluable here.  How would you feel if your child walked away from this pursuit tomorrow?

Some goals are more important than others, of course.  Sometimes it will be right and proper to encourage our children to persist and to strive and to achieve great things; sometimes it will be right to let the child walk away.  But we should at least examine the extent to which our own pride is invested in this pursuit, and be mindful of the ways in which this egoistic investment might warp our judgment or scramble our priorities.

Let’s hope thirteen-year-old Autumn Ashante does not go the way of the Black Swan.  As I wrote there:

What do we really want for our children: Perfect technical execution, or creative transcendence? Lives of mechanical achievement, or of rich passions and personalities? Do we encourage a healthy growth into sociality and sexuality, or stamp them out in order to focus our children on their professional pursuits? To what extent are our children liberated by our stories, and to what extent are they haunted by our own unfulfilled dreams? And when does the striving for perfection and achievement become less a vision that inspires a joyful labor than a Law that enslaves and drives us to self-loathing?

What do you think?  Are there other signs that our parental pride is overly invested?

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