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Doing Our Best

Doing Our Best (When We Want To)
By Wendy Priesnitz

Is the idea of potential troublesome or empowering?

As I ponder that question, which was posed at the end of a previous article in Life Learning Magazine, I think the answer lies in the definition of the word “potential,” which involves both power and ability. Too often, we focus on the ability part and neglect the personal power aspect.

We all have potential. We are potential, actually – to grow, to develop, to learn, to accomplish things, or just to be. Every day is a new day with new experiences. But when people talk about kids living up to their potential, they usually mean doing well in a school sort of way: getting good marks or scholarships, embarking on job training, having a rewarding career. Or they mean excelling in a specific subject or sport, in a way that involves winning, getting medals – recognition. Parents’ desire for their children to be what we call “successful” too often involves fear that the kids won’t, rather than trust that they will…or acceptance that it’s their choice not ours. And just as often, it involves adult coercion so that kids will meet their potential – something that we assume is good for them.

Where did we get derailed into making it about us instead of them? Well, school teaches the need to measure. Our natural curiosity makes us curious about how our child will “turn out” as an adult. And our desire for them to be happy and successful (there’s that word again) makes us anxious that they do their best. So we test, measure, and predict children’s potential in everything from their academic success to their height. We identify their supposed strengths and weaknesses. We determine whether a child is ahead of the “development curve” or lagging behind. Then – as the good parents that we want to be – we try to figure out what we can do to influence (fix, treat) whatever the results are.

We turn helping our children maximize their potential into a problem to be solved. (This can be a special issue for parents whose kids have been diagnosed as different – either with so-called learning or behavior “disabilities,” or as being “gifted.”)

So where’s the problem in that? Surely, it’s a parent’s job to help a child excel! Well, it’s a matter of who owns the decision to maximize one’s abilities; it’s about choice – power, in effect. 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.

We understand that people often put extra effort into things they are interested in – that is, they are motivated to explore the potential of those things and their capacity to learn about them. Often, they become very good at those things and they may even have potential for excelling at them…and/or turning them into a career. However, having talent in a certain area – potential – doesn’t mean we will (or even should) want to develop it. We might, but we might not.

“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.

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