My daughter, a high school senior was very upset about her score of 1550 on her SAT, an almost perfect score. She felt disappointed in herself and insisted that she could do better, even get a 1600, actual perfection. She was still pushing to re-take the test she had aced junior year, this fall of senior year.
When do we tell our kids that something is actually good enough and that it’s okay to take a break, to simply be proud of one’s achievements? We want them to strive to do their best, to reach their greatest heights and not discourage them; but sometimes that determination can border on obsessive compulsive. It is our job as parents to set limits and boundaries when it comes to unhealthy behavior.
My daughter has always fought a terrible battle with anxiety and there are times when the anxiety wins out. Nothing I say and nothing she does, that in her head she has decided will fix said problem, works. Certainly, nothing we say to each other at the time, ever helps. When the crying passes, the tantrum is over and the panic attacks ease, there’s usually a light at the end of the tunnel, where she gains some perspective. This inner angst, a mix of neurosis, lack of self-worth and a rigid anality about everything she sets out to accomplish, is a recipe for pure disaster when she’s trying to tackle life’s hurdles.
Junior year was very difficult and senior year doesn’t seem to be shining a light at the end of the tunnel; everything that more experienced parents have told you, the “been there done that” speech that is typically very annoying, because you will of course do it differently, your kids will not be crazy…well they are right. You won’t be better at it and your kids will act crazy. Listen to those all-knowing truth tellers, to their words of wisdom for the parental survival of high school, the college process and in general learn from them about how they endured teaching their kids to manage life.
Junior year was a particularly miserable year. Managing my daughter’s need to be perfect, developing a college list that she felt was equal to her level of academic ability and running around for college tours, took its toll. There are times that I found myself wondering if she was really mine. An irrational stranger had taken hold of my child; she had become a Stepford daughter, rigid and stubborn, unwilling to yield, unwilling to listen to sound advice. She was constantly explaining my inability to understand the gravity of the year and of senior year, what a 4.0 means compared to a 4.1; it could deter her course in life. “Mommy, the teacher hates me; he only gave me a 98 when I really deserve 100.” “A 98 is the same thing, I explained, you did really well, great job.” My daughter responds, “Mommy, it means the difference between a 4.0 and a 4.1 and it will ruin my chances of getting into my dream school.” This is a conversation, when had at least 1000 times, becomes draining and worrisome. Plus, did I want my child actually attending such an intense program that actually defined the difference between a 4.0 and a 4.1, on the off chance that she was correct? I do want my child to be the best she can be, but I’d prefer that she was the best version of herself.
There are many parents in my community, a wealthy suburb outside of New York City that would agree with my child and would have called the teacher to complain about the 98. Some of my friends, who are by the way, lovely people but who will not let their kids ever fail, would have called the principal and demanded a meeting. I’m like a lone wolf, pushing a sense of balance on my daughter for the sake of her sanity. I try to do this with all three of my kids. Kids need to sometimes be allowed to make mistakes, to fail and we must let them, so that they can learn to pick themselves up when it really matters.
So how do we explain to our over achievers that a 4.0 doesn’t mean your life is in jeopardy and in fact, there are many kids who wish they were doing as well. Not every 98 is the end of life as we know it, they will still go to college, they will get a job and in my daughter’s case, will still ultimately end up in a top tier engineering program. “They will be good enough, they will be smart enough and gosh darned, people will love them” (if you are old enough to remember the Stuart Smally character from Saturday Night Live back in the 90’s, you are laughing your heads off right now). In life there will be so many bigger disappointments, so many more hills to climb, so let’s rein it in people. A 98 is great, get over it.
There comes a time when we as parents must set boundaries for our kids to keep them healthy in mind and spirit. To this end, I researched a very well documented and widely studied philosophy on parenting to deal with this latest “catastrophe,” written by mom sages through history. (Just wait for it). I actually forbade my daughter from both discussing the “low” grade with her teacher and from retaking the SAT, citing a very old and famous proverb when she asked why, “because, I said so.” (There it is). When reason loses out and when otherwise really smart kids just don’t connect the dots, we need to take control. We need to help them to accept a broader picture of the world; there are bumps in the road that they are too young and too scared to understand. We can’t always walk a straight path, sometimes we will need to veer. Our life’s plan doesn’t always go the way we want it to and life can change, often for the worse in a minute. Let’s give our kids the foundation and skills to push through life’s disappointments and to accept both a 98 and 1550. Bottom line? Let’s give them the skills to calm down.
There’s a great article about daughters and the danger of perfectionsism with some helpful tips from experts, in the Sydney Morning Herald. The sort of perfectionism my daughter seems to have to achieve to a point of compulsiveness can actually be quite dangerous to her health and to many other girls who have similar traits.
I recently gave my daughter a really important assignment, another one I researched heavily in the library (not), to be completed before her homework; “Go out for ice cream with your people, have fun and let it go.” This was not an offer of something yummy or a negotiation. She had to eat ice cream before she would be allowed to study. Good mom? I don’t know. I’m doing the best I can to push my child not to only see life through a math and science lens; not everything adds up in the real world. I hope to teach my daughter to let loose a little.
Forced ice cream and homework prohibition seem like a good start.
Sue Bolen is owner of Sue Bolen Publicity, LLC in Westchester, NY. A publicist for over 25 years, Sue trying her hand at a writing. She’s trying to walk down a new path for her second part of life (she turned 50)!