Doing Our Best (When We Want To)
|“One of the differences between life learners and people who believe in schooling is that life learners trust that if a person is interested in something, they will choose to pursue it. And we tend to leave the degree of interest and level of mastery up to the learner.”
On the other hand, as seventeen-year-old life learner Kathryn Michalak wrote in this magazine in 2003, sometimes mastery and success can happen despite one’s expectations based on identified potential. She badly wanted to sing in a choir but had little experience, training, or ability. She writes about how our expectations of ourselves and our abilities can either limit or propel our learning experiences, and traces her path towards choir singing as a process of “gradually transforming fear and incompetency into ability.”
Even if we know that we or our children have the potential to excel at something, it’s not always necessary to do so. In a 2007 Life Learning Magazine article called “Doing Their Best Naturally,” Rachel Gathercole pointed out that, as adults, we choose not to live up to our potential many times in a day. Our free will allows us to be selective. “In point of fact, it is not necessary, or desirable or even possible to give one’s all to every single thing – especially things chosen by someone else,” she notes. Then she points out that even though she has the potential to park her car exactly the same distance from each side of a parking space, it’s not necessary to spend the time to do so – just getting it between the lines is usually good enough. Likewise, our children’s growth involves learning how to use time selectively and to prioritize how to use both time and abilities.
So if someone isn’t “working to potential,” as teachers often complain to parents, does that mean they’ll be failures in life? Of course not. Most children, like most adults, feel pride in a job well done, and will learn for themselves when to operate at the leading edge of their potential. Let us not forget the look of satisfaction on a baby’s face after he’s taken his first step, reached out and grabbed something she’s had her eye on, thrown his cup onto the floor for the first time…. Wanting to accomplish something can be motivation to do it well; the satisfaction of having accomplished it is motivation for the future.
We can help our children articulate their goals (although we may find – and need to accept – that those goals can be moving targets, and that we might not agree with them). We can also help them decide the best way to reach their goals. But we needn’t worry that children who don’t go to school won’t live up to their potential. In many ways, because they have been allowed to retain and use their intrinsic motivation, they may actually be better at making decisions about that than their schooled peers!
Besides, emphasizing performance for one’s children often sidelines goals relating to family, love, community, having children, finding one’s calling, being happy. Instead, it can foster anxiety and self-absorption. I wonder if extremely success-oriented parents really motivate their children or are they actually destroying their motivation? If success is defined by the parent and not the child, are the goals even relevant? Will these kids ever be able to meet the standards set by their parents? And if not, won’t they feel that they’ve failed? And if they do meet the goals, will they feel they’ve done their best? Or will they feel they are accepted only for what they have achieved, rather than for who they are?
It’s great when our children do well at something they take on, and observing that creates some of a parent’s proudest moments. And our children will excel in many things if they are given the support, respect, trust, and space that they deserve. We just need to keep out of their way and let their own innate motivation guide them to the authentic heights that neither we nor the testers of potential can predict.
Wendy Priesnitz is the founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine, a journalist with over 40 years of experience, the author of thirteen books, and the mother of two daughters who learned without school in the 1970s and '80s.