Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What it Takes to be a Star

After Matthew's Wednesday gym classes, I usually take a moment to ask his teachers how things went that day.  Last week, I was told by his teachers that: "every year there is a star in the class, and this year it's Matthew."  Apparently, he has a good arm (catching and throwing), but what makes him a star, in their eyes, is that he is terrific at participating, tries hard at new things, listens well, and cooperates with the other kids.

What they said about why he is a star in their eyes was music to my ears.  Something that I work deliberately hard at with Matthew is having him really get that what is important is not how well he performs at something; what matters is that he tries, and enjoys, etc..  You know the saying: it's the journey, not the destination, that matters.  I try to live this out in bigger ways with Matthew, but also in little ways.  One small example... when Matthew is working at printing his letters, sometimes his letters look great and other times they don't.  If the letters don't look so good but he's been clearly focused on trying hard, I tell him something like: "Matthew, I'm happy to see how hard you're working at your letters - that's great!"  Then he inevitably tries even harder, and works at those letters with great pride in his efforts...and his ability comes along beautifully.  Conversely, when the letters look perfectly formed (at which point, let's face it, wouldn't it be easy/normal to simply reward him with a "good job!" and a cessation of the day's printing lesson??) but I can tell he's been doing the bare minimum to get through the task, my comments to him reflect that I'd like him to try a few more letters with more effort put into them...or I ask him if he's working hard at his letters and then ask him to do a few more while he's trying hard.  It's a conscious decision on my part to acknowledge the result, yes, but to mostly look beyond that (even/especially when the results are good) to examine the effort he's put into something or the amount of joy that he's deriving from it.

The reason I've thought through a lot of this stuff is because I grew up quite differently.  My parents were raised in families where appearances mattered, where accomplishments were valued and sought after.  As a result, so did I.  Yes, hard work was a must (I was raised Mennonite, after all!), but it was all about achieving the goal, the prize.  Thus, when I worked my butt off in grade 10 math, and ran home with excitement about the 99% I got on the test, the comment that came my way was not "wow, Ruth - math is hard for you and you worked so hard to get ready for that test."  The response was: "why wasn't it 100%?" I worked hard to be recognized for the result I obtained, not because I wanted what I eventually achieved.  In fact, over time, as a teen and young adult, I lost sight of what it was that I even wanted, because my desire to achieve became a need to please everyone else.  I lost sight of what I thought was important, what wanted for my life. I learned, unfortunately, to base my identity on what I accomplished, rather than on what I tried to do, or had fun doing, or did because I felt called to it.  In addition, frankly, I learned that sneakiness paid off.  For example, because I was naturally a good student, I could work hard enough to achieve a result that looked good, and then slack off thereafter.  None of it was about putting in effort because the effort, the journey towards the destination, was not something that I figured to value until well into my adult life.

Anyone who knows me well knows how much my feelings of value and esteem have been dependent on achieving things...though I have now worked through many of the related issues, I admit that I struggle to this day with finding value and worth independent of what I do.  What, as a somewhat mature adult, I now recognize is that the times I feel the best about an accomplishment is when I've worked really hard at something...stuck to it.

Thus, when Matthew was born, I'd already had a lot of time to think about how much I really believe in focusing on effort rather than primarily on accomplishment.  I've had some time to internalize the stuff, which has been important not only because of my baggage, but because it's so normal in our society for people to focus on achievement: whether about school marks; how many goals one's kid scored in yesterday's hockey game; how well they print the letter 'p' etc etc etc etc.  My observation is that, while most people would verbally agree that accomplishments shouldn't be the exclusive or primary focus, in practice, most folks instinctively do that very thing...praise the results.  And I get it - like I said, it's hard not to focus on accomplishment in our competitive, dog-eat-dog world that we're trying to prepare our kids for.  I'm not saying, BTW, that we shouldn't recognize that our kid scored a goal in their hockey game or achieved honours in their school marks.  What I'm saying is that, in my own experience, it was the praise for these things in which I found my value and identify.  Failure, thus, became a non-option.

So...I've struggled a lot with this issue, and have come to grips with some of my own truths:
  • that accomplishment means little without effort;
  • that accomplishment is not what's going to make Matthew (or me) happy or fulfilled in this lifetime; 
  • that mental and emotional flexibility and creativity are the product of trial and experimentation and failure, rather than accomplishment;
  • that Matthew does not need to achieve a certain goal or status or whatever in order to make me happy, so he should figure out what he wants to put effort into, what will give him joy, or what he feels called to do;
  • that life truly is about the journey - how we do what we do in the time we have.
Regardless of what Matthew accomplishes in his life, regardless of what makes him happy, regardless of what he chooses to do to earn a living some day, he's always gonna be a star in my heavens.

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