3 words that will drive your kid toward success

Ever wonder what separates kids who have a thirst for knowledge and an internal drive for achievement from those who are content to spend their days lying on the couch playing video games? Ever notice the difference between kids who manage their lives with confidence and those who stress beyond reason? While some of what you see is inherent personality – nature versus nurture, as we call it – much is learned behavior that can be altered with the right parenting approach, and it begins with three little words: Do your best.

When parents tell their kids to do their best, it sounds entirely different to kids than the alternative expectations, namely:

  • I expect A’s from you. Nothing less than an A is acceptable.
  • You better pass this class.
  • You can’t afford to mess up your GPA.
  • Do whatever you have to do to get an A.
  • Give the teacher whatever you have to, even if it doesn’t make sense. Just get a good grade.

Have you used any of these expressions in an attempt to motivate your child? If so, you may be doing more harm than good. Stressing grades over true learning and understanding has a number of negative side effects:

1. It creates short term motivation that only lasts until a test is over or a project is completed. When that happens, most if not all of the content is forgotten, begging the question What’s the point?

2. It fosters motivation based in fear rather than accomplishment. Kids do what is required because they’re afraid of the consequences if they don’t. But when you’re no longer there to instill the fear, where will their motivation come from?

3. It creates a stressor in teens’ already stressed lives that actually inhibits learning. Yes, stress can paralyze even the strongest adults; imagine what it does to teens.

4. It creates a “success at all costs mentality,” which can lead to cheating, dishonesty, and a sacrifice of moral character and ethics.

5. It builds resentment toward you that hurts the parent-child relationship and breeds anxiety in the home, the one place that should be your child’s safe haven.

6. It devalues education and learning by reducing it to nothing more than a letter grade. If you want to kill your kids’ love of learning, stress the letter grade.

The other day in class, my students, who are in the midst of SAT/ACT testing, asked me what kind of student I was in high school and how I did on my tests. I wish I could have captured the looks on their faces when I told them my very average SAT score. Here was their teacher, someone they’ve identified as smart, someone with a doctoral degree and a book or two under her belt, revealing that she had a mediocre SAT score. Now they were curious – how did I get into a competitive college, was I a straight A student, and how did I develop such an obvious, infectious love of learning? Why am I so driven? Were my parents hard on me? Did they make me retake the SAT multiple times?

No, I explained. All my parents ever said to me were three little words – Do your best. The emphasis was never on a letter. It was on valuing myself and facing every challenge with the mentality that I would use my strengths and overcome my weaknesses, so that regardless of the result, I would always know that I did my best.

My question to you is, what more can you ask of your child? Is an A more important than your child’s absolute best effort? Are good grades more important than your child’s love of learning?

Ask me how many kids, upon hearing my story of how I was raised, turned to each other and said, “I wish my parents had that philosophy.” You may be getting results from the “You must make A’s” pressure, but trust me, they’re not the results you want.

mygrad20150110_14433731 (2)

In college, my parents added “Have fun” to the normal “Do your best.” I’m just as grateful for that piece of advice. And I still managed to graduate.

For more tips like these, check out my book Teenagers 101.


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