On praising by comparison

Too often in high school, the praise that kids receive is rooted in comparison.

“You scored in the 97% percentile.”

“You had the most points on the team.”

“Your solo was the best one.”

Comparison isn’t inherently bad, especially when it’s the standard of judging a performance. If you’re on the swim team, your performance in a meet is based on how fast you swim compared to other swimmers.

But even when the comparison is the basis, the praise at home doesn’t need to be that way.

“I know you studied really hard for that test.”

“I’m so happy that you’re really enjoying playing on the team this year.”

“I was so proud. You didn’t seem nervous at all during your solo!”

Naysayers may claim that we need to get kids prepared for the cold, hard, real world where winners get ahead. But that’s not rooted in fact for most industries–or in life. Most successful people have a string of failures on their unspoken resume entirely because they were willing to take on uncertain challenges. And your personal life is rarely rooted in competition (there’s a reason most wedding vows don’t include a promise to be a winner).

Parents, the next time you want to express your pride to your student, look for a way that doesn’t rely on a comparison to others. Home should always be a place that cares more about who you are and less about where you placed.

A different (teen) management model?

Parents, have you ever had a boss who was a micromanager, someone who needed to be kept informed of or outright involved with every step of your work?

If so, were you thankful for their style of constant oversight and for their reluctance to trust you? Did it leave you happier and more engaged? And perhaps most importantly, were you able to sustainably produce your best work?

There’s a reason I have only ever heard people use the world “micromanager” pejoratively—it doesn’t lead to better outcomes or to happier employees.

Now, what type of management style are you using with your teen?

Are you constantly checking their grades online and intervening at the slightest sign of a dip? Are you involved with everything from selecting activities to communicating with teachers to choosing appropriate colleges? Are you spending more time as a manager of their lives than you are as a parent to the human you’re raising?

Some parents may quibble with the comparison and point out that responsibilities as a parent to a child are different from those as a manager to an employee. I couldn’t agree more.

And that’s exactly why if you’re micromanaging your teen, it might be time to consider a different model, one that embraces your role as their parent and diminishes your role as their manager.

Which parenting plan are you embracing?

In just a one-minute video, Challenge Success co-founder Madeline Levine shares her recommendation that parents embrace the “30-year parenting plan” over the “CEO model.” The former aims to raise a future 30-year-old who’s happy, caring, engaged, etc. The latter focuses on last quarter’s numbers.

It’s all going to be OK

Parents watching kids go through the college admissions process already know how the story ends.

You don’t know the specifics yet. You don’t know which colleges will say yes or if your kid will hit it off with their future roommate. You don’t know what job your student will hold after college, where they’ll live, or who they’ll marry. Those are the unknowns.

We know that no teen has ever suffered as an adult because of one low grade, test score, or admissions decision in high school. We know that no adult is still smarting over not getting into a dream college when they were 18. We know this. The ride to college may include some bumps, but it’s temporary turbulence on a much longer flight of life. Transcripts, test scores, and college applications eventually recede into high school memories of our much younger selves, often in ways that aren’t reflective of the adults we become.

So please consider this: how would you behave if you knew everything was going to be OK?

Would you wring your hands over 50 points on an SAT exam?

Would you wage academic war with a teacher over a B+ you wished were an A?

Would devastation be an appropriate reaction to a denial from a dream college?

I understand that rationality often goes out the window when it comes to our own kids. The specifics may be uncertain, but deep down, you know it’s all going to be OK when it comes to all-things-college-admissions. And it’s worth reminding yourself of that every now and then.

It’s easier to manage, to accept, and yes, to enjoy when you know it’s all going to be OK.

Misplaced pronoun

One pronoun often gets in the way of a healthy college admissions process—“we.” Parents who say, “We’re applying to…” or “We are still waiting for a decision from…” are forgetting that all of this college admissions activity and anxiety isn’t happening to them. It’s happening to their kids. And too much “we” just puts more pressure on them.

But “WE” still has its place, especially when reinforcing how much of your life as a family has absolutely nothing to do with college admissions.

WE are a family, one with history and principles and traditions.

WE have “Family Sunday” dinners in which WE will endure Uncle Frank’s interminable stories.

WE cheer for the Yankees/Lakers/Patriots, etc. because WE stick together in our fandom.

WE celebrate Christmas/Ramadan/Yom Kippur, etc.

WE support each other.

WE want each other to be happy.

WE will always be WE, no matter what happens with college admissions.

Don’t abandon your WE. Just don’t misplace your pronoun.


Healthy tension

Parents, the next time you’re tempted to ask your teen, “How are your college applications going?” Consider replacing it with this exercise:

1. Ask, “How are you doing?”
2. After the likely reply of “Fine,” ask, “How are you really doing?”
3. Simultaneously with #2, radiate a sense of safety and concern rather than panic and judgment.
4. Be quiet longer than it’s comfortable to do so.

Number 4 is the most important because it creates tension. Embracing the tension of quiet leaves space for your teen to answer. Replacing the tension of quiet with more words removes that space.

Don’t fill the space. Let the space work for you and for your teen. And a revealing conversation may ensue.

Some tension is healthy tension.

More downtime, and more sleep

Here’s Challenge Success’s Playtime, Downtime, and Family Time: PDF for Teens; Common-sense strategies for promoting teen health and well-being.

And for teens (or parents!) who are convinced that you can get by with less than the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep, Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams is a worthwhile and potentially alarming read.

Let’s get some more downtime—and some more sleep—into all our lives.

Learning door-to-door

An 8th grader from a local middle school knocked on my door over the weekend selling holiday wreaths as part of a school fundraiser. She probably had no idea that the simple act of attempting a task so many of today’s kids outsource to their parents was about to make me the easiest sale of her day.

I try to resist the tired middle-age proclamations about how things were done “back in my day.” In fact, I think that modern advances, especially around technology, are often making today’s kids’ lives harder, not easier.

But whether the kids of my generation were selling Girl Scout cookies or collecting our neighbors’ payments for the newspapers we’d delivered dutifully, I think our parents did us a favor by sending us out with nothing more than encouragement. It takes guts to knock on a door of someone who’s unlikely to be happy to see you. It takes guts to deliver a sales pitch to a stranger, to deal with rejection, and to keep coming back for more. And it takes guts for parents to let their kids develop their own guts.

When a school has a fundraiser based entirely around selling holiday wreaths, what’s the point of the entire exercise? Is it for a parent to sell the wreaths at work or even just to write the check, to take the work and experience and learning away? Or is it to send kids outside of our watchful gaze and let them learn to navigate their way in a world that doesn’t come with instructions or with a parent clearing away all the obstacles?

Some parents may push back and say that they’re just protecting their kids. I understand that inclination now that I’m a parent far more so than I ever did before. But not only does the data suggest that the world is safer for kids today than it ever has been—it also shows the alternative of keeping our kids on lock-down until they’re 18 or 21 or 37 puts them in a different kind of harm’s way.

Parents spend a lot of time swallowing their fear. It starts in the delivery room, and continues when watching kids toddle off to kindergarten and when they ride away on their bike for the first time. Parents who’ve already dropped an older child off at a college dormitory can attest to the lump-in-the-throat moment of watching them walk away to begin their lives as college freshmen (I get misty just thinking about it, and my oldest hasn’t even turned four yet).

This 14-year-old wreath-seller stood on my doorstep and delivered her pitch. She was nervous, but she did it. I asked her how things had gone that day—she sighed, but without an ounce of resignation answered, “I’ve gotten rejected nine times in a row.” She’d heard a range of reasons for the no’s—a few said they weren’t in the mood, a few others said they’d think about it, and one told her they didn’t believe that hers was in fact a real school and that the entire pitch was a scam.

But I think she’ll be even more likely to stand in the face of a future project where success isn’t guaranteed. I think she’ll be a little braver when she heads in to speak to her counselor or asks a teacher for help or sits for her college interviews. I think she’ll be more resilient if a part-time job or a prom invitation or a college says no. And I think those lessons will improve her odds in those and any other setting she faces where there aren’t any directions to follow, where her skills with human interaction and persuasion are a lot more important than her ability to select the right multiple-choice answer on a test.

And she’ll be back to deliver my wreath on Monday, December 10.