We folks in the United States value hard work. Many of us believe all good things should be earned.
Grades, degrees, jobs, promotions, and even trophies should only be granted when a person has worked hard enough to earn them. I bet when you read that list, you agreed those are accomplishments that should be earned.
I do too. However, the valuing of hard work definitely impacted how I loved my kids; sometimes in not so good ways.
One example happened when my son was 9 years old. Jacob was the classic, gifted underachiever. While his ability level was above grade level, his effort often didn’t match.
I knew he was struggling in school. His dad and I told him many times that grades were important. He wasn’t expected to get straight ‘A’s, but he did need to put in enough work to at least earn ‘C’s. When his report card showed a “D” or two, we hit him hard with the loss of all privileges. For 8 weeks, he lost dessert, television, all electronics, time with friends, and several other consequences of which he likely remembers better than me. He had to earn each privilege back one week at a time by improving his grades.
At the time, I was proud of our parenting choice, believing it was for his own good. I remember one time in particular when we had stopped for ice cream. He cried while his sister, dad, and I ate ice cream in front of him.
It seems cruel and unnecessary in hindsight. I justified it by thinking that he had been warned, knew the consequences, and could have easily earned better grades.
But, was any of that true? Can a 9-year-old articulate his struggle in a way that won’t disappoint his parents? For that matter, can any of us describe our weaknesses or challenges in a way that doesn’t open vulnerability which could potentially lead to loss of love?
Looking back, I definitely see the flaws in our choice. This is one of those “had I known better I would’ve done better” experiences.
Jacob did raise his grades. However, his entire academic career became a struggle to get grades that were just good enough to get by. I wish I knew then how I could’ve worked with him to find ways to play the game of school.
Clearly, I sent a message of conditional love and approval. Jacob had to do something to enjoy good things. Instead of working with him to support and encourage, I withheld and punished.
I’m not saying that kids should be able to do whatever they want, or that they shouldn’t learn the value of working hard.
I am saying that no matter our intentions, children should be loved for who they are, not what they do. Jacob mattered more than any good grade. Yet, that’s not what he heard through our actions. I work hard now to show him how much he matters, how amazing he is just because, and that my love is not conditional upon his success.
I love this Oscar Wilde quote on the root of love:
You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear. ~Oscar Wide
While there may be others along the way who hear our child’s song, we should be the ones who hear it best.