We live in an achievement-oriented society: Children who score higher on tests get better grades and honor roll certificates. Drivers who avoid accidents pay lower insurance rates. Professionals with more degrees get promoted and earn higher wages. We don’t often get awards for working hard and coming up short, especially after we are adults. But if we all got accolades for effort, we might accomplish more as a society — because we’d all be willing to take more chances and give 110% despite the likelihood of public failure and humiliation.
Take athletes, for instance. They are constantly judged on their win-loss record, their stats, their awards. But we can appreciate great physical feats even if they don’t result in winning the prize.
The Chicago Cubs are an example. Words like classy and loyal sum up the reactions of both the Cubs baseball team and its fans after their World Series hopes were dashed by the New York Mets’ fourth straight win in the National League Championship Series. After the Mets received their trophy, thousands of faithful Cub fans still filled Wrigley Field to express their pride in a young team that went far deeper in the playoffs than anticipated. To thank them, the team came out of the dugout and saluted their fans, waving hats as the crowd chanted “Let’s go Cubbies.” No booing, no bad behavior, no whining about mistakes and missed opportunities and coming up short of the ultimate goal. Just pure appreciation for players’ effort all through the season and post-season just to get to the NLCS.
Many times in my life I have been proud of the great city of Chicago, and this is one of them. Those kinds of values embraced by my fellow Chicagoans are what convinced me to return to the Windy City to raise my own family, after I left the suburbs of Chicago where I grew up to attend college and start a career.
That kind of gratitude for hard work — that Cub fans showed their beloved team — is what we’re supposed to be teaching our kids, according to many experts like Carol Dweck, who wrote a book called “Mindset” being touted in school systems as a new way to prepare children for success. The book espouses the importance of praising effort and not achievement, while still examining how to improve results.
I am a very achievement-oriented person and parent. Like many parents, I take great pride in the good grades and awards my kids earn and their winning performances in sports and music. As parents, we love to watch our kids succeed. But I also know the great value in watching them come close to winning but falling short, and not letting that deflate their motivation to try again. And again. As I’ve read so many times, the most successful people are the ones who fail the most. When we aim high and miss the mark and learn from our failures and persevere, we can accomplish so much more than when we only attempt challenges we are reasonably sure we can accomplish. In her “Mindset” book, Dweck says kids who are constantly praised when they get that “A” and score that winning goal eventually stop trying to challenge themselves, afraid they will let down those who expect perfection — including themselves.
It’s a trap that mothers fall into, because we have such high expectations for our parenting. Sometimes, when we know we can’t meet all of those parenting milestones for ourselves and our families, we just give up on certain areas — we stop making time to exercise, we let clutter take over our house, we let our marriages grow cold, we let our kids do what they want. It’s easier than trying to attempt to improve those things and only succeeding 10% of the time — because we view that as a 90% failure.
We sometimes pass on those feelings to our kids without even realizing it, hinting that it’s better not to try than to give it everything we’ve got and fall flat on our face. We should be convincing our kids — and ourselves — to embrace failure. Here’s why:
- Failure teaches you what not to do. Try again using another method.
- Failure teaches you humility. Congratulate the person who earned the win or award you wanted and learn from them.
- Failure teaches you perseverance. If you believe in something, don’t let others convince you to give up.
- Failure teaches you the need for a village. Reach out to others who can help you reach your goals next time.
- Failure teaches you to value the journey over the destination. Look back on how much you enjoyed the experience.
- Failure teaches you to re-evaluate your goals. A sense of fulfillment may become more important than money.
I listen to a lot of motivational books that remind me every day that effort does matter; it’s one of the only things that keeps me from beating myself up. Every day I vow to be the best mother I can, which would mean accomplishing all of my daily goals — not to yell, to get my kids to all their activities on time, to be available to help with homework, to instill personal responsibility in my kids so chores and music practice are done without reminders, to provide motivation for my kids to limit electronics time on their own without nagging, to make a healthy dinner and eat it together with my entire family, to resolve conflicts calmly and intelligently, to get my kids to bed on time, to clean, to exercise, to stay in touch with my friends and extended family, to enjoy quiet time alone with my husband, to pay bills, to organize my family’s schedule, to get enough sleep, to read, to write, to finish work projects, and to be kind to those around me.
I’m probably lucky if I achieve half of those each day, and no one cheers for me at the end of the day for what I did accomplish. I usually get complaints for my failures: “Why didn’t you do my laundry?” “Why are you late to pick me up?” “Why didn’t you cook dinner yet?” “Why haven’t you planned that trip to see the relatives?” It would be nice to get applause for the things I did get done, but in a mother’s world, that doesn’t happen, especially as kids get older. We don’t get the hugs around our legs, the chocolate kisses, the joyous smiles from the playground swing that we got when they were little that made all the craziness seem worthwhile.
So what is the best way to get gratitude from teens? To model it ourselves.
I try to appreciate when my kids and husband have their own little successes: “I’m so glad you made your own meal, so you can have that desert you wanted.” “I’ll stay up late to do your laundry, since you finished your homework early.”
I try not to react harshly to any perceived failures: “Even though I disagree, I support your decision to drop out of a band you don’t enjoy.” “I’m disappointed you got a low grade, but I’ll work with you to find out what you need to do to learn the material better next time.”
I try to express and feel true pride in the hard work and not the results: “It’s okay that you didn’t get picked for the scholarship, because I’m so proud you spent all that time writing such great essays and developing skills that will help you with future applications.” “It’s okay you didn’t make the travel team, because I am so proud of all the times you stayed after the game to practice more and the friendships you made with former teammates.”
It’s why I have not given up on my effort to create a television show for and about working mothers featuring profiles of OverAchieving Moms who share their inspiring stories of successes and failures. Though I fell far short of my crowd-funding goal, I am now taking a new approach to create my pilot program by teaming up with others willing to donate their time. We have videotaped multiple interviews with mothers and are editing the first segment, working hard and taking pride in each little step along the way.
Congratulating the effort is a lesson we can all learn from the greatest fans in the world, who will be back at Wrigley Field to support their “lovable losers” next season!