Part of the current culture of parenting is providing the BEST for our children. We feed them the best, whether breast-milk or organic international formula then organic vegetables and antibiotic-free, free range, grass fed meats and poultry. We live in the best neighborhoods, with the best schools or we send them to the best private schools. We find the best activities from the best gymnastics, best piano teacher, best sports leagues and then when that’s not good enough, the best traveling select teams. But is giving our kids the “best" of everything, really what is best for them?
I grew up living under the poverty line so extras weren’t really in the budget. I think that plus my innate perfectionism and competitive nature is what led me to get caught up in that culture when raising my twins, now 15 years old. I spent hours, days, weeks, and months researching everything I put my kids into from preschool, Little Gym, Musikgarten, sports league,s and kindergarten. I was so afraid that if I didn’t give them the best of everything, that I was a failure as their mom and that they might miss out on an opportunity later in life. I’m here to tell you today that I was wrong, so very wrong.
I am currently part of a research team looking to innovate youth ministry. Part of that process has been interviewing teens, tweens, and people who work with that population. The kids we interviewed fell in the demographics of our church, which is mostly middle to upper middle class living in good neighborhoods with great schools, both public and private – probably very much like the general demographics of this group as well. We asked them about their life, what’s important to them, and how they feel about their future in addition to questions on community, friendships, and spirituality.
What we learned is the success-oriented and “only the best” mindset held by adults has created a feeling of fear and scarcity for our young people defined by hopelessness, and a skewed perspective that any step off of the pre-prescribed path will result in irredeemable failure. This perspective does not allow for freedom or creativity and is antithetical to our beliefs as Christians about where our identity and value lies. So many of the teenagers told us that their parents insisted on only the BEST for them, and they internalized to mean they owed it to their parents to be the best at everything as well. They believe that being the best is all that matters to themselves, their parents, and their teachers. This has put so much pressure on them that they feel they have no freedom to experiment with new things, to learn from mistakes, or just do what they love. Between this and believing the bad news story the media has hyped of scarcity in college admissions and job placements after college, which are just not true, they can’t see the real good news story of all of the opportunities that await them even if they are never the best at anything other than being their authentic selves. This leads to feelings of hopelessness and anxiety. This is by no means what their parents meant to impart by giving them the best. This is the worst outcome parents could have predicted.
What can you do to save your children from this hopelessness and anxiety? Stop worrying so much about the BEST. There is no such thing. It’s a myth, and a marketing campaign, and way to steal the joy from families. Choose the things that give your family joy, build community, and don’t have you driving all over the metroplex. When you are looking for activities for your kids, choose ones that are conveniently located and that have them participating with kids in your own community. This will help them to make friends with whom they can build true connection and can conveniently have play-dates, and you and your spouse will also make new friends in your own community. Humans are designed to be in community with one another, and healthy, convenient community connections are integral to healthy development.
Look at the preschools near your neighborhood. You don’t need to drive them across town to the preschool you’ve heard is the BEST. Choose a school that is convenient for times and location that has kind and gentle teachers and lots of little kids who look like they love being there. It should focus on learning through play and developmental readiness, not academic success. No kid needs to know how to read or write all their letters and numbers going into kindergarten – that’s what kindergarten and first grade are for. These are developmental skills that your kid can only learn when their brain and fine motor skills develop for them and there is a wide range of ages when this happens naturally. It’s the same as crawling and walking. You can’t teach those things until their body is ready. Forcing it won’t help them learn and can hinder that development. Even if you are planning on sending your kids to private school, you don’t need to have your kid in any special preschool – no matter what the other moms may tell you. Just listen to your Aunt Linda.
Join the recreational league in your own community for baseball, soccer, basketball, etc. You do not need to drive to ULL or Westside because they are “The” little leagues to play in if you want your kid to have a shot of going to the Little League World Series. You don’t need to drive across town to enroll your kids in the Margo Dean School of Dance or Texas Ballet Theater. There are wonderful dance studios all over the area where your children can dance with kids that they will later know in school.
Maybe eventually you will find you have a kid who is obsessed with a sport or an art and you will want to give them an opportunity for further growth in a higher level program, but don’t feel the pressure to do that until your precious one begs for it. Don’t even listen to the coaches and teachers who are convinced all their best students need to be in a professional company or select team. You will want them to play their sports and do their activities through their school if possible. Don’t be the parent who has their kid in select sports because their school team isn’t good enough. The social skills and sense of belonging that kids gain from playing on their school’s team are invaluable.
Protect your kids’ mental health and well-being by staying out of the Rat Race. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good. Give yourself permission to enjoy your children and their childhood without always planning for their future. Live in the moment. What you are doing with and for your kids today needs to be what’s right for your family today, and not what you are afraid you need to do for their future. Give them the time and space to explore, make mistakes, and to rest. Focus your efforts on your kids’ well-being, social development, and family time. Let yourself off the hook for having to provide the best, because they already have the best – a family that loves them unconditionally.
Linda Kennedy is a former teacher who is passionate about children and learning with a special love for kids in middle and high school, a community volunteer and wife of 25 years to Shane, mom to twins Shane and Savannah.