346. Doing Your Best

As a child, I never liked feeling as if I had to be the best at whatever I was doing. So as a parent and a teacher, I always did my best to decrease pressure on children by telling them that they didn’t have to win or get an A; I just expected them to do their best. That was supposed to be
reassuring. Victory and high grades may have seemed like they might be fun, but I didn’t think it was fun for children to think they had to excel in order to be worthwhile people. I told children I just wanted them to do as well as they could.
Lately, I’ve been reconsidering that message. Not that I now tell children I expect them all to win or get perfect grades. But I wonder how children hear us when we tell them to just do their “best.” I can think of several thought processes that could go on in a child’s mind when that child is told to do his/her best, and it may be that not all of these
processes result in feelings of reassurance.
I remember how the quest for my “best” affected me. Sometimes, I almost would have preferred being told to win or get an A. At least I could tell whether I’d done that. If not, at least I’d know I hadn’t. But how was I or anyone else
supposed to figure out whether I’d done my best? Sometimes I could get an A+ without doing my best. At other times, I
could do what I thought was my best and get a much lower grade. There really wasn’t any way of knowing what my best was. And sometimes it was hard for me to deal with not knowing; I blamed myself for not figuring out a way I could be better.
Other children may interpret the message as a sign of incompetence. If I were really good, thinks the child, people wouldn’t be telling me it’s all right to fail or lose. So I must not be so good. We want children to feel competent, confident, and calm, but sometimes well-intended words can backfire.
What we say to children who face challenges may actually be what we’re saying to ourselves: WE don’t want to be disappointed if children don’t accomplish their goals. Children may feel fine about it already, and our words, perhaps meant to be reassuring, may be planting the seeds of disappointment. It’s important to recognize children for who they are, not
mistake them for who we are.
I’ve found that the best way to find out what’s going on for children is to listen to them. Listen not just to what they say, but also to how they say it, and to what they don’t say. Sometimes children want to hear that it’s all right to be just okay. Other times, they don’t want to hear that; they want to hear that adults believe in their greater potential. Some
children seem to want to hear one thing and maybe need to hear another. Like us, they can be complicated people.

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