Photo by Greg Rakozy
This back-to-school season you might be like me. Wondering what kinds of challenges and discoveries await my 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. We wonder how our kids will perform. How they’ll measure up against their peers in class and in sports or other pursuits. How they’ll take more steps toward the successful adulthood we dream about for them.
These underlying questions loom beneath the surface like a sleeping 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 that extracurricular activity, volunteer a few more hours to boost their resume, and take the “zero period” class at 7am each weekday to get a little bit ahead of the curve.
As we head back to school this year, it’s time to wake that giant and slay him.
Here are three strategies to help you win that battle:
1. Challenge “success” as the ultimate goal.
Is “success” really the goal for our kids, or is it something bigger? Societal definitions of success have driven us to push our kids to exhaustion. This “race to nowhere” has been well documented, but the system that drives teenagers to burnout and busyness 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,” offers some helpful tools for parents you can review right now. Especially check out the page of brief free videos for parents on questions that might be bugging you about achievement, homework, scheduling, and play.
2. Help them find their own sparks (not yours).
While you might have a plan for “elite” sports, cello lessons, and chess club, your son or daughter may secretly wish they had more time to pursue what they really care about. Gather your courage and ask whether they really want to do all the things you’re signing them up for, or if other interests sound more life-giving.
Explore together what the Search Institute calls “Sparks”—interests that spur engagement and passion in kids. When young people discover and develop sparks, 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. The Thrive Foundation for Youth has a whole set of free parent resources on sparks.
If you’re getting anxious about questions of vocation for your older teenager, here’s a two-part series from our archive about helping your kids find their calling.
3. Ask different questions.
I don’t know about you, but my questions before the start of school often center around logistics—supplies, schedule, clothing, and carpool. As our kids get older, they need us to help them reach a more reflective space as they head back to the classrooms and hallways of their new daily routines. Take each of your kids for a one-on-one conversation over milkshakes (or whatever you like to do together) and ask a few questions like this:
- 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 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 can I help? Is there any way I’m trying to help that just makes things worse?
- How can I pray for you?
And finally, here’s a little perspective from expert Madeline Levine, cofounder of Challenge Success, about taking the “30-year” view of our kids’ development.
Now, take a deep breath. School’s almost in. Let’s slay some giants.
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