Teaching Our Children to Redefine Success

Children have developed a very narrow view of success and we, as parents, are responsible for it. Most of the time our children think if they are the star athlete, the top of the class, and the first chair in the orchestra then they have achieved success……but what if we have sold them short in how we have defined it? What if it is bigger than that? What if our definition is producing kids who don’t know how to celebrate accomplishment when it looks different than theirs? I think this is an epidemic in our society.

As parents, we want to make sure that our kids are at the top, while we neglect to acknowledge the miracles happening all around us. Our kids know it too. They know we expect close to perfection and often pressure them as much for our own sense of accomplishment as theirs.  They are blind to the world around them because pulling off the high standards of achievement takes all the energy they have. This idea has troubled me for a long time.

So….years ago I decided to take action.  I was determined to expose my kids to others whose definition of “success” was different than theirs.

When I was open to the idea, opportunities just started to come. Cooper joined reading buddies at his school and every time his buddy reached an AR goal, we celebrated- Easter egg hunts, lots of cheeseburgers, and the finale- safety patrol for the day with the bonus of donuts. He learned that his buddy’s accomplishments of going from a pink dot AR book to a light blue dot was worthy of a party.


IMG_1928IMG_1678IMG_1769We also started throwing parties for AR goals met in the classes where they did not have an overflow of eager, available homeroom moms. We CELEBRATED! We partied Ellis style with food, games, and balloons (thank you, bestie Shelly Gerber).


See, we get stuck in our little worlds, our little classrooms, our little neighborhoods, and our little families. We see our children and maybe their classmates, carpooling, soccer, and baseball friends. But do we really SEE the rest of the population? How can our children see them if we don’t?  Have we taught our children to celebrate others’ successes or just their own?

These ideas came to a pinnacle the week before school was out this year. The week was crammed with so many events- fifth grade banquet, awards, parties, etc. and honestly, I was growing weary the first day of the week because of all the planning that had already happened. So the second to the last day, I was dragging myself through the parking lot- camera and snacks in tow. I was dealing with the sadness of my youngest leaving elementary school and going to  middle school and I was in the midst of a little pity party as I said good-bye to this sweet school I loved so much.

As I pulled myself together, I ran into a precious friend. She was beaming. Glowing. My mind was reeling. What had happened? What could possibly bring that much excitement?? Then she starts talking, a million miles an hour. She said, “I just left the awards ceremony for Audrey! She got the 50 point club for AR! She got perfect attendance! SHE GOT ALL E’s FOR CITIZENSHIP!!!!” In that moment, my heart celebrated right along with my friend because I knew that her daughter’s successes were HUGE! As I walked away, my spirit was full. My joy was complete. Audrey had succeeded.

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The next day was 5th grade awards and my son and all his STEM friends would inevitably rack up the certificates and trophies. I knew going into it that there would be the 500 AR point club, PE student of the year, and even 2 community college scholarships for deserving students. Amazing awards and proud moments. My son was even to win the principal’s award and give a speech to the class and parents.  This was one glowing mama!

I was taking pictures of all the students and about ten minutes into the ceremony, the guidance counselor said to me, “You might want to get ready for the next one.” Not knowing what she was alluding to, I moved in close for the picture. Little did I know that his moment would make me completely undone.


One of the precious students whose successes we had celebrated for all those years  was getting Most Improved Student of the 5th grade. I could barely hold my camera. I was not just crying, I was weeping.  I saw his teachers beaming with pride, jumping to their feet with applause. I could imagine in this moment my son thinking that this could get embarrassing, as I hooped and hollered like a crazy woman. He was a HERO. MY HERO. HIS TEACHERS’ HERO. The WORLD’S HERO. Why? Because he had overcome the obstacles and won. Simple as that.

What are our children missing when they do not get the opportunity to celebrate with the overcomers of this world?  They are not afforded the privilege to see someone whose success is different than theirs and just as significant. This is how children learn to be givers. This is how they learn to have compassion. They don’t learn it in their gifted classrooms and their all-star sports teams. They learn it in the classrooms where 10 AR points, not 100,  are worth a cheeseburger party and where perfect attendance is worthy of celebrating.

Our children must find their own way….

University Application Form
University Application Form


How do we measure success for our children? Straight A’s? The perfect college application? Star athlete? I think we often miss it…..MOST of us do. And who suffers because of it? Our children do.

High school students today are bombarded with expectations- grades, clubs, sports, service projects, SAT, ACT, PERT, FCAT, and now the new test whose name I have repressed because it boils my blood. Are high school students doing all of this because they love it? Most of the time no-they are doing it to impress colleges. They need to “beef up” their college apps so they attend mission trips, start neighborhood projects, and play sports that they do not even like….and all to look good.

The result? An amount of anxiety and stress in our teenagers that has catastrophic results.  At a time when they are supposed to be finding out who they are, what they love, and where they are headed, many are attending college aimlessly without any clue as to who they really are. They have spent their first 18 years trying to impress the right people and work the right system and they have not even had the time or energy to figure out why they are here and who they were created to be.

I do speak from some experience here. I attended a very reputable college and spent about five years after I graduated interviewing college applicants and sending in reports of my assessment of the students. What I found was shocking and very sad to me. I found myself sitting in front of shells of individuals with not a moment to breathe and not an original idea to share. They had become robots in the college application world. Most of them looked like they just needed a hug, a nap, and a day at the beach. Finally, I looked at one girl in the top of her class in a prestigious high school and said, “How in the world do you have time for all of this?” She looked at me, confused, because she did not know any other way. As it would turn out, she did not get into the college, even though she had the perfect application. Interesting.

One individual I interviewed already had her sorority picked out and her recommendations ready to send to the college. When she found out she did not get in, she suffered from extreme anxiety because everything she and her family had built came crashing down. Sad but true.

Then there was this amazing musician. He was from a modest family, loved his instrument, and was willing to go wherever God called him. There was also the swimmer whose family had sold everything, packed up what was left and spent the year visiting the 50 states. She was spunky and fun and engaging. Both of these students got in to this college. Interesting.

I am going to be vulnerable here. My dad was the poster child of perfection. Choate boarding school, Yale University (like the generations before him), Vanderbilt Law School. Pretty impressive, right? Well, at the age of 30, when I was a little girl, he was tired of being perfect. He took off in his pimped out conversion van (it was the 70’s) and partied like there was no tomorrow. We no longer fit into the imperfect world he created for himself.  He thought that all the high achieving would benefit him in some amazing ways but what he found was he did not even know who he was. The reward did not meet the work it took to get there and to this day he has rebelled against everything conventional, including fatherhood.

And where do we, as parents, fit into this equation? We are usually the reason our children end up with their stomach in knots and their social lives nonexistent. A mom told me yesterday, “I told my son (who is in middle school), now is the time to work, you can play when you are 25!” WOW.

There is a population of parents who NEED their children to attend elite universities in order to obtain a status of acceptance from others. How sad. Where have our dreams for our children gone? To them making decisions to make us look good? How very, very sad.

I picked up a mug in the “graduation” section of a store and it read “DREAM BIG.” I thought a lot about that since then. Have we even allowed our high school students to dream at all?  Or are we too busy fattening up their college applications with activities that they never dreamed of but will impress a panel of strangers?

As I have have watched one of our four sons graduate high school and enlist in the Army and another one who will be  a senior next year, I have reflected a lot on how to be their mom. Here is what I have decided…..

They will each find their way.

We will encourage them,  expect them to work to their potential, and pray for them constantly. If they want to take a year off from high school to go backpacking- great. If they want to go to community college to save themselves and us massive debt- great. If they are accepted into a prestigious school with tons of scholarship money and a passion for it- great.

But what they will always know is that they were allowed to find their way. They will not look back and think we lived their lives for them.

Hopefully, they are spending high school finding out who their Creator has made them to be and what He has called them to do. That will take time- probably a lifetime- but they will know they were given the opportunity when they were with us and that all we ever wanted for them was that they would find THEIR way.