When my son entered a new nursery school at the age of 3, I arrived to pick him up on his first day to hear two mothers having a conversation about how well their kids were reading and how they had hoped that this particular nursery school would continue to enhance their children's academic performance.
Curious about how my son had done on his first day, I checked in with his teacher, who reported that he had been particularly "friendly and polite."
I thought to myself, "Well, he might not be reading at the age of 3, but hearing that he's friendly and polite is the kind of feedback I want to hear. That's the person that I want my son to be."
When my daughter was in second grade, she had a teacher that would reward the students for random acts of kindness.
These random acts included times when a student would offer to help another student, when a student would compliment another student or when a student would offer appreciation toward others. There were many times that my daughter would earn this type of reward.
And each time she would come home with one, I would once again shake my head and smile thinking, "I'm so proud of her. She's becoming a good, caring person." As parents it's all too easy for us to get caught up in our children's grades, reading levels, the age they completed their first "chapter book," whether or not they've been chosen for advanced placements, etc. Of course we want to know that our children are reaching appropriate milestones and are performing well. But despite my conscious attempts to not compare my children to others, I have occasionally found myself doing just the opposite and got caught up in academic competition.
Mind you, I've never felt that my children are competing with their friends and classmates. Academic competition seems to be among parents. Granted, I've been blessed with three children who are all good students.
But somehow, I've become overly sensitive to statements like, "My child read his first book at the age of 2," or, "My child could recite the Periodic Table of Elements at the age of 3." When I hear that I just want to scream, "My children have been complimented for becoming good, caring people!" I'm not suggesting that smart children don't have good manners. And of course it's a wonderful accomplishment when a child has a special talent or excels in something. But sometimes I feel like we focus so much of our attention on how advanced our children can be that we often take the risk of missing out on enjoying the people our children are growing up to become.
When we feel like we're becoming trapped in the world of academic competition and questioning ourselves about our children's educational achievements, perhaps we might want to stand back and take a look at who our children have become. How do they interact with their friends? Are they sensitive? Polite? Do they reach out to others? Do they assert themselves appropriately? Do they show empathy? Sympathy?
I'm proud to admit that when I ask myself these questions I am constantly reminded of how proud I am and how much I truly enjoy the people that they have grown to become. And most importantly, they are proud of themselves.
I truly believe that as parents we have quite a bit of influence on our children's education. If we are positive, involved and invested in their education then it only stands to reason that they will have a positive experience. With that said, however, perhaps we can spend less time competing with each other and instead devote that time investing into the development and recognition of our children's character.
Think about it. When the day comes that they are applying to colleges, nowhere on the application will it ask "what reading level were they in first grade," and "how old were they when they first recited Shakespeare." What will matter the most is the person they have grown up to become.
Donna Spellman is Family Centers' director of self-sufficiency and independent living. With offices in Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan, Family Centers is a United Way, Darien Community Fund and New Canaan Community Foundation partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.