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Respecting and Shaping Children’s Expectations for Success

by Neal Brown, Green Acres School, Head of School

Last week I read a revealing account by New York Times editor Pamela Paul, “Regrets of an Accomplished Child.” She reminded us as parents and educators to pay attention to something we unfortunately often overlook, particularly in the current educational and professional culture where a narrow definition of success has become the norm. The methods that we tend to use to measure this narrow band of success, according to Paul, don’t sufficiently account for or promote what makes young people learn, what makes them happy, or what helps develop in them a sense of fulfillment that can carry them throughout life. While many times our children make their own checklists toward success, they are unfortunately tending more and more to avoid taking risks that could result in failure—which are precisely the kind of risks that we and Paul understand make it possible for us to learn and grow. As Paul describes, “actual learning comes by making mistakes and figuring out what went wrong and how to make it right.”

This concept resonates with me as I think about my 22 year-old niece, who rather than going straight to medical school, is working in Laos this year, risking and learning more each day, and developing a more intrinsic sense of success. Or I think about a common theme in recent films, where parents impose a narrow definition of success on their child… and where this child eventually finds a way to communicate to the parents how she sees herself and the vision that she has for her “successful” future. I watched Perfect Pitch with my family this weekend, and while the relationship between the lead character and her father was a mere side plot, his inability at first to recognize his college age daughter’s strengths and to support her aspirations stood in the way of the risks she needed and was ready to take to become her own success story.

I encourage parents and educators to read Paul’s story and to reflect on how we are respecting and shaping our children’s expectations for success. What is our role at home and at school in promoting experiences that could bring risk, but also authentic learning that no narrow and standardized “to-do” checklist task could provide?