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Doing Their Best - Naturally

Doing Their Best – Naturally
By Rachel Gathercole

I am sitting on my front step trying to figure out my son’s Rubik’s cube. Though such puzzles don’t usually interest me much, I am absorbed in the rhythm of each turn and flip of the block, when I am snapped out of my trance by a friend stopping by with a question that’s been nagging at her. Knowing that I am the mother in a family of self-directed, “delight-driven” learners, she puts the question to me this way: “If you don’t give your kids grades, if you don’t give them assignments and tests, if you allow them to just pursue their own interests, how will your children ever learn to achieve, to apply themselves, to reach their full potential – you know, to do their best?”

I value my friend and her question far more than solving the cube, so I put it down and focus my attention on her. I’ve heard this question or ones like it before, but often don’t have time to respond fully. Right now, though, I have a rare moment to muse. My son, an artist, is busy preparing paintings for a local art show and my daughter is practicing for her clogging team’s upcoming performance. So I answer her...and my response is quite simple: They automatically do their best. They do it because they are pursuing their own interests. Period. In fact, it’s possible they may never learn to do things any other way than their best.

My friend is flabbergasted. What am I talking about? she inquires bluntly. Frankness is something I value in our friendship and I am always happy to answer honest questions, so I continue:

Take drawing, for instance. My daughter, who is seven, draws because she wants to make a beautiful picture for someone. Given that this is her reason for drawing, why would she do it to any less than the fullest extent of her ability? After all, she wants to please the recipient, and to show how beautifully she can draw as well.

My 11-year-old son, on the other hand, draws because he is an aspiring comic book artist. He gives it his all simply because he wants to make awesome comics. More importantly, he loves to draw. When he wants his comics published, or wants to sell them or wants a job with a comic book company, he will have that added reason and will naturally try as hard as he can and do the finest job he can because he will want those outcomes. This is known as motivation.

“People automatically give their best to things they care about. (Unless, of course, they have been told their whole lives that their best isn’t good enough.) Perhaps the only reason to do less than our utmost is if we are doing something we didn’t ourselves choose.”

My kids also study the martial art of Ninjitsu. This is their choice and they approach that with discipline and focus, too. They excel at Ninjitsu because, quite simply, they love it. My son, in particular, also wants to be respected by his senseis (instructors) because he respects them. Furthermore, he wants to be strong, skilled and reap all the other benefits that they work toward in their study of the art. And that is, of course, why he has chosen to study it in the first place.

My son also writes novels and stories. He goes to great lengths, asking many questions and choosing words carefully, to craft these works well and to achieve the effect he is after – a funny story, a scary scene, a gripping cliffhanger. Why would he bother writing them otherwise? He gives writing his optimum effort for the same reason that he writes at all…because he chooses it. Thus, on one level, it is actually free will itself that leads my children to do their best.

But if they don’t do what appears to me to be their best, that’s okay with me, too. It is also free will that allows them to be selective. In point of fact, it is not necessary, desirable or even possible to give one’s all to every single thing – especially things chosen by someone else. When I am parking my car, I do not put my most concerted effort into making sure the car is exactly the same distance from each side of the parking space; just getting it between the lines is good enough. To spend significantly more effort than that would be a waste of time, possibly bordering on the obsessive. Likewise, I wouldn’t want my kids to feel “locked in” to doing their absolute best on everything, since this would be impossible and would come at the expense of things they care about.

Today when my friend stopped by, I chose not to finish the Rubik’s cube so that I could give my full attention to her and her question. If my child is making herself a peanut butter sandwich, it is enough that she gets the peanut butter and jelly to cover most of one side of the bread. There would be little to be gained from spending time trying to get it “perfect;” that time could be better spent on things that matter. In our constant choice-making, we put more effort into the things we care more about, and with good reason. This is known as prioritizing.

And the importance of prioritizing is not to be underestimated. Understanding that we have the option to choose what we put our efforts into is a very valuable and powerful asset. A stay-at-home father I know, who has Ivy League degrees in both chemistry and business, is often questioned about why he is not choosing to fulfill his enormous (money-making) potential as a businessman. He responds that he cannot be “father of the year” and the CEO of a Fortune 500 company at the same time. He chooses to focus on fatherhood. It is more important to him.

This applies on a smaller scale as well. The other day, in the middle of cleaning his room, my son stopped to hear the hurt feelings of his younger sister. I overheard him addressing these feelings in a way that I could tell was employing all of the skills and sensitivity he had access to. This took time. Ultimately, his room-cleaning went unfinished, but his relationship with his sister was intact. If it had been up to me, I would have made the same choice as he did. A spotless room just isn’t as important as a healing conversation between family members.

Later, in the midst of attempting with frustration to work out a difficult mathematical problem on his own, he walked away from it in favor of going to work on a perspective drawing technique he has been trying for weeks to master. I could have insisted that he stay and pursue the math problem to its completion. I did not. Drawing is more important to him and I respect that priority. In most cases, I value things he has his heart set on well above things it might seem he “should” do. And so, of course, does he.

And therein lies the fact that makes this all work. People automatically give their best to things they care about. (Unless, of course, they have been told their whole lives that their best isn’t good enough – a discouraging yet common phenomenon.) If we stop and think about the things we care most about, I believe we will recognize that we give these things our very best efforts, simply because we care about them. In fact, perhaps the only reason to do less than our utmost is if we are doing something we didn’t ourselves choose. Since they pretty much direct their own lives, my kids do tend to give things their all. Thus, on another level, it is the freedom to prioritize that leads my children to do their best.

And then, of course, there’s modeling. When we adults strive to do a first-rate job on the things we tackle, our children see that, as far as we’re concerned, making choices and then giving them our very best shot is what people do. Likewise, when we assume that they are trying their hardest, kids don’t get the message that we don’t trust them to. Without grades or criticism to hurt their pride, they needn’t get discouraged and decide not to try.

That’s great, my friend says. But what about the times in life when they will have to do things they don’t choose? Like show up to work and pay the bills? What will they do then?

I see what she means. And here is my answer: If they have to do those things, and do them well, then they will do them because they have to. Of course, by then, they may be in the habit of doing a good job, so may just do so as a matter of course. On the other hand, individuals raised in a climate of non-coercion are also likely to realize that, even in such cases, they do ultimately have a choice. They may choose to go to work so as not to get fired or so as to maintain a certain lifestyle.

Then again, they could choose another path that reduces the bills they have to pay or that positions them in a job they’d rather get up and go to. Rarely is there literally no choice. Life is full of choices. An awareness of the choices one is making is ultimately another motivation to follow them through with gusto.

Besides, children, like adults, tend to do what is expected of them. I expect my children to do the best they can and also to do what is right for them. I don’t mean that I expect it as in, “I expect you to behave, young man.” I mean that I expect it in the same way that I expect water to turn to ice when I put it in the freezer. The same way I expect the sun to come up in the morning. The same way I expect the mail to be delivered. It is the usual pattern. If it doesn’t happen, I am surprised. It means the freezer is unplugged or not working. Or it is a national holiday or the mail carrier is sick. Or my child is too tired, or discouraged or something else, to give it his or her all. Or they just don’t want to. And that’s okay with me. It’s not their job to be perfect.

Of course, if they are doing something that is not good for them, I will ask them to change it. I am their parent, and if they need help or guidance, I will give it to them.

Still, most of the time they try their little hearts out. Why? Because they’re not learning to do the minimum required to just “get by.” Because no one gives them a bad grade that tells them their best wasn’t good enough or a good grade that tells them they needn’t try any harder. And most of all, because pursuing their own interests – and thus automatically doing the best they can – gives them ample chance to experience and discover the many positive effects that doing one’s best produces.

Like, say, a sold-out comic book. A smile from a grandmother who receives a beautiful card. A delicious cake. A successful art show. A reliable friendship. An acceptance letter. A call back to an audition. A referral to mow another lawn. A standing ovation. A request for a sequel. A blackbelt.

And yes, the simple pride of a job well done. Now that’s motivation – a real reason for them to try their darndest again next time. And the next time. And the time after that. And the time after that. . . .

Rachel Gathercole is the mother of three delight-driven, self-starting children, and the author of numerous articles on homeschooling, unschooling, parenting, and children. She is a frequent contributor to Life Learning Magazine and the author of the groundbreaking book The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling, which addresses the question of homeschoolers’ socialization in the depth that parents need.

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