Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of children. As a teacher and then a high school counselor, my expectation was that all children under my watch would do well. This began a life-long career of helping children achieve. But the question arises – what does it mean to do well or achieve? In a recent article in TIME magazine (August 3, 2015), Jeffrey Kluger makes the point that in today’s world the goal for many parents is that their children be exceptional. Modern parents often expect that all of our children will be accepted into those universities that admit only 9% of their applicants. This article contends that today’s parents give children a delusional sense that they will become the 1% top achievers. It is obvious that this is an impossibility. Think of the sense of dejection and hopelessness when these children realize that they are not who they were brought up to think they are.
It is my belief that we are valuing these children for what they can become rather for whom they really are. We create a world for them that says that they are the center of the universe and, as long as they are told they are the best, they believe themselves to be the best. But, being reasonable people, we know that this is not reality. In many cases, the motivation for these children comes from others telling them what they should be and then can be. It doesn’t come from an inner sense of well-being that creates internal motivation that says, “I want to do well because it feels good to do well.” It is not about the drive that stems from an inner sense of wanting to do what we think is important for us. Rather it is about what others want for us.
The other type of children I’ve spent a good amount of my time with, therapeutically, is the low achiever. This child doesn’t believe in himself and neither do most of the adults in his world. Again, there is the lack of internal motivation. The mantra is, “I would rather not try than try and fail.” They are often too well acquainted with failure. As parents, we cajole them, we bribe them and if that doesn’t work, we punish them. I can tell you that there can be a short-term positive effect from punishment of poor academic performance, but it doesn’t last. How do we reach these children? My experience is that we address the high achiever and the low achiever in the same way. We must first value them for who they are and not for the person we think they can be. We teach them to value themselves, again, for who they are and not for what others expect them to be.
I once had a young teenage girl who was sent to me for therapy by her high school principal because she was failing academically and had some serious behavioral issues. Both the school and her parents had just about given up on her. This girl resisted talking until I found that she had a passion for snakes. When she talked about snakes, she would become animated – really coming alive. She began to make some goals for herself. She either wanted to work in a herpetology department at a university or at the Zoo. She found a part-time research position in a university working with snakes. What was important for me was that it was necessary that I appreciate and care about her passion. From that point on she was able to make other goals that were productive for her. But they were her goals – not mine, not the school’s, not her parents.
We help children find their passions and gifts by allowing them to explore their feelings. What do they like, what do they dislike? We allow them to talk about their honest wants and needs. We ask questions, such as, “What is important to you? What do you want for yourself? How are you going to get there?” Our role is to ask the questions – not to solve the problem for them. In today’s world, we, the good parent, want to insure that they make the right decisions, choose the right course work, make the right friends and achieve at that 1% level. However, in the long run, these are not our decisions. These decisions are made from knowing who we are and what we want. Our work is to help our children find these answers.
Mary Fitzgibbons, PhD is a licensed psychologist and has been the Director of West County Psychological Associates since 1986. Dr. Fitzgibbons created Comprehensive School Services, which provides consulting services and counseling to administrators, staff, students and parents. She has worked extensively with many public and private school systems in regard to dysfunctional families and at-risk children.
She provides emotionally-focused psychotherapy to youth, adults, and families.