What to Do When Your Child Doesn’t Measure Up

When the envelope came, my wife and I agreed that we would not open it until the kids went down for the night. At our first chance, we tore into it like vultures.

It was Zuzzy’s scores on her 3rd grade standardized tests. In order to be considered for admittance into the city’s best magnet school, your score needs to be at least 95% in reading and math.

Zuzzy’s scores were…not good enough.

Her scores were considered advanced, but just barely. And this was after weekends of preparing for the test.

There goes that sure-bet Ivy League education we’d been saving up for. There goes that dream life we assumed each of our kids would effortlessly glide into.

It hurt feeling that my child doesn’t measure up.  But if we’re being honest, it hurt my pride just as much.

I had to check myself and play out scenarios different from what I envisioned and revisit my parenting.  Here’s what I’m working on.

7 Tips for When Your Child Doesn’t Measure Up

1. Put Away Your Measuring Stick.

Look, it’s natural to want our kids to be better than we are. But too often it’s swirled in with our insecurities. If you’ve been working tirelessly to climb out of poverty to become upper middle class, how would you feel if your child fell down the ladder to working class? Or, say you’ve been struggling to even pay your bills, wouldn’t you do almost anything to ensure your child does better than you?

You and your parenting become the reference point. You see, we make ourselves our children’s measuring stick. And it’s not healthy for you or for them.

2. It’s a Long Game.

The existence of early struggle does not mean that they will end up on the other side of winning. In fact, early struggles can actually enable later success.

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell cites the concept of “desirable difficulties” by psychologists at UCLA. We assume people with challenges succeed in spite of their difficulty. What’s intriguing is the possibility that they succeed because of it. Gladwell wonders if, by facing challenges, you “learned something in your struggle that proved to be of enormous advantage.”

I’ve seen it in my life — I attribute any of my financial success to my childhood poverty. My failures have spawned my best work. So Zuzzy didn’t get into the best middle school in the city. So the odds at the start seem like 0%. So what? It’s not where you start, but where you end.

I was dramatically reminded of this weeks ago watching the UCLA vs Texas A&M game.  The Aggies jumped out to such an insurmountable lead that all the computer models gave UCLA 0% chance to win very early on. But low odds don’t mean you quit the game.

(Source:  ESPN.  UCLA had 0% chance of winning for most of the game until the very, very end.)

Without those early struggles, the ending isn’t as sweet.   It’s a jagged pill, but “desirable difficulties” mean we should welcome challenges.

3. Trade Scores for Skills.

My kids have never won a real chess tournament. They probably won’t be grandmasters. Their piano playing sometimes hurts my ears. They probably won’t be playing at Carnegie Hall. Zack is the shortest kid in his class and trending to be a short adult. He probably won’t play in the NBA — he literally doesn’t measure up.

I don’t care.

That’s not why they’re in these activities. Trophies and medals are nice, sure. But the real prize is what’s happening underneath: Engaging the mind. Developing self-discipline. Experiencing the correlation between effort and improvement. Becoming a good teammate. Fighting back from a loss. Loving mastery. These outcomes are what matter to me. These are what stay long after the trophy’s luster wears off.

4. Find the Real Score.

Are they healthy? Do they know they’re loved? Guess what? They’ve already won. When you’re younger, you feel entitled to health. However, the older I get, the more I realize that every day of life is a gift and victory. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, so if you and your loved ones are healthy and have the gift of sharing a moment together, life doesn’t get any better than that. Expressing this gratitude together completes the joy and something I try to do everyday with my children.

5. It Doesn’t Take a Genius.

You don’t need a 140 IQ to be kind. A fancy degree isn’t a prerequisite to improve someone else’s life. Perfect SATs don’t equal financial fitness. Doctors aren’t the only ones with rich friendships. It’s taken me decades to understand that the things that truly matter in life are not luxury cars or drool worthy houses.

6. Be Honest About Their Skills.

Zuzzy wants to be an interior designer. She excitedly showed me her newly organized bathroom. Beaming with pride, she asked me what I thought.

“It’s so much better than yesterday!” I said.

Can I redesign the house?

“No.”

Why?

“You’re still learning. One day you can if you keep learning.”

Of course she’s not good enough — she’s only 9 years old! But I find that when you tell someone they’re good at something, they tend to stop trying to get better. Why exert more effort when you’re already good at it? Conversely, I don’t say, “you’re not good enough.” Rather, I say “your skill is not good enough yet” so that I reinforce a growth mindset.

7. Be Honest with Love.

I’m a realist. I tell my kids that if they don’t want to work hard now, their life will be harder later. I say that I will be disappointed if they don’t choose to do their best, but it’s their choice. I tell them frequently that they need to earn everything they get except for 2 things: God’s love and my love.

I hope it releases them from doing things just to please me. I pray that they have an authentic relationship with God. I want them to have the freedom to be their best because they want it for themselves.

The Ruler

When they’re conceived, you hope for Harvard. When they’re born, you’ll settle for healthy. Then things change. Rapidly. We start measuring them against our past. Against other kids. The ruler we use to measure our children is some variation of this:

All those things by themselves are wonderful goals. But very few people are meant to walk that path. That ruler we create for our kids is so straight and narrow that it doesn’t allow for any of the back streets many of us take to arrive at “success,” however you define it.

The True Measurement

I’m not saying be satisfied with mediocrity. Far from it. I demand excellence of myself. What I’m trying to do is create a culture in my family where the pursuit of challenge and mastery is a joyful journey.

The ruler focuses on achievements and profession. However, the pursuit of challenge and mastery will help them thrive no matter what career they have.

Now, this might surprise you, but I think that things should be measured. Otherwise, how do we know if there’s progress?

So then what ruler do I use to measure my children (and myself)? Simply this:

Are we better than we were yesterday?

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8 Comments

  • Lauren Fortenberry October 16, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Your best insights yet. I love you that begin with “Here’s what I’m working on.” As parents we can easily get caught up in the relentless measuring, but, as you suggest here, we have to allow our children to grow in their own way…even when it’s painful for us to endure.

    And, in this great challenge, the waiting and the loving make us better.

    Reply
    • JT October 17, 2017 at 8:35 pm

      Someone once said this about coaching, and I think it applies to parenting: it’s like being strapped to a chair and letting someone slap you around.

      It’s so much easier (but less fruitful) to just do things for your kids so that they won’t fail. Of course, that leads to failure when you’re not around.

      Reply
  • Beth October 16, 2017 at 11:23 am

    Grade three seems young for tests, do the children all sit those where you are? As you say, there’s so much more she can achieve than on paper. Also, I think some children are late bloomers.

    Reply
    • JT October 17, 2017 at 8:37 pm

      That’s when they start the testing here. I don’t love this system. That score isn’t going to hold back my kid :-). When does the testing start in Scotland?

      Reply
  • Lisa October 17, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    I so agree! I had high expectations and then I had to adjust myself because my expectations weren’t at all realistic and attainable. My kids will learn at their own pace, and I shouldn’t feel like a failure just because they aren’t the “best”. I firmly believe that every child is best at something, and it takes guiding and trying out everything for them to realise it. I can’t make my children love math and be a scientist, or doctor, but I can guide them into the subjects they love.. it’s a learning process, parenting. 😉

    Reply
    • JT October 17, 2017 at 8:39 pm

      Hi Lisa! You speak the truth. One thing I want to do for a week (month?) is just observe and take notes on my kids. Who are they? What are they like? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Sometimes listening with our eyes is just as powerful.

      Reply
  • Mrs. Quest November 10, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    Great article! I totally agree. As a teacher, I see the stress that parents put on their kids to measure up to the rest when their child is already putting in their best effort. It’s sad to see how some parent pick at things about their kids that don’t really matter.

    Reply
    • JT November 11, 2017 at 9:02 pm

      Hi Mrs. Quest! You touch upon something so important that we lose sight of: what really matters? It’s hard to know what really matters, especially when you’re tired and stressed!

      Reply

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