How We Sometimes Sabotage Our Kids’ Success

I work with students from many different socioeconomic backgrounds and many different parenting situations. One student I have worked with for 7 years comes from an affluent family with many children. He faces challenges of color blindness, ADHD, OCD, depression, and slow processing, which are all likely related to his premature birth that left him with brain seizures as an infant.

The parents are great people — very kind, generous, and, by and large, value their kids’ education. Yet, one parent has simply assumed that since he barely got through high school and does not see himself as particularly smart, why should he think his kids have any academic prowess. The other fights tooth and nail to make sure the kids feel hopeful.

My student is the physical “spit and image” of his father. Handsome and athletic, this boy wishes he were just “plain” smart. His academic hope has been largely ignored, and, instead, his athletic prowess has been fostered at the expense of his academic achievement. He has never been held accountable for his lack of follow through, and he has never had a proper routine that prioritized his education. The father knows the child can be successful on the field, like he was, so why worry about academics that the child will “never get or understand anyway”. The mother, on the other hand, knows the child can be successful at school and wishes he had more focus on that potential. The result? Seven years of academic sabotage and a boy who feels unsupported and not so full of hope. He often thinks that the effort he puts in is not worth it because he is never going to be “that smart”.

Thankfully, the one place we got everyone to buy in was having the boy take American Sign Language (ASL) instead of Spanish or French. He had gotten a Foreign Language Exemption at his school to accommodate his slow processing, and instead of not doing any language, he chose to pursue ASL as it would be physical and less “academic” feeling. Yet, it is here that his academic and athletic prowess have met.

His deftness with the language is impressive; it calls to his strengths. The movement is kinesthetic learning — routines that he is good at remembering. The signs for words are all meaningful as each one tells a story that he can feel with his body. Interestingly enough, despite his attention issues, he is able to focus with a hawk-eye on the movements of another’s hands. The best part is that this bit of academia is something both of his parents can get behind. He has felt that change, and it has made a huge difference in his motivation to be successful. If he does nothing else, his dogged pursuit of ASL fluency will help him make his way and feel useful.

If you can get your teen to buy into the idea that there is hope, you can also get them to buy into being a part of the process. Fostering hope, but not by creating unrealistic goals or expectations of what it will take to reach them, can take a large bite out of the anxiety that often keeps kids from succeeding. Kids need to hear that small steps matter, as they are what make even the loftiest of goes realizable.

Teaching your kids that they have potential is not the same as just giving them a medal for showing up. Seek ways for them to have real successes and encourage them to take the risk to try something new, but be sure the “something new” speaks to their strengths. Don’t be embarrassed by vocational programs offered by your school district — these are often a great route for kids with learning differences as they are hands-on and practical.

For some kids, just showing up is, indeed, worthy of a medal, but that expectation should not last forever. At some point, just showing up is a basic, fundamental requirement of life. Showing up should be part of the routine. But showing up should also have its rewards.

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