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The Time to Aim Low

When lowering goals and expectations is the right choice.

First, Happy 2021 to all of you. A new year brings new hope and new energy. We ourselves needed new energy to start blogging again, evidently. After a break, we are now back and ready.

There are a lot of columns out there right now about New Year’s resolutions and goals for 2021. You will be urged to lose weight, get organized, and do all sorts of wonderful things you’ve been putting off or let slide in 2020. This is not going to be one of those columns.

One of our patients was very thankful for a piece of advice we gave them in 2020. She called us up specifically to tell us how much of a difference it had made for her. As we puzzled over what pearls of wisdom could have fallen from our golden lips, she said, “You told me to just give up (on trying to get her teenager to get his grades up). That made all the difference.” Huh? How could that be good advice? “Give up and let your kid do terribly in school.”

Setting lofty goals is wonderful; in general we are all for personal growth, aiming for personal bests, all that positive good stuff. But there are goals that do more harm than good. There’s a line between goals that help you achieve, and goals that are unattainable (at least temporarily if not permanently), and that therefore lead to unwarranted stress, repeated failure, and frustration.

This year was a uniquely difficult year for many students. In our high school district, many more students than average failed multiple classes, others never even Zoomed in for classes—they just disappeared, seemingly. The parents of these kids were stressing about the kids grades all year long— as though they didn’t have enough else to stress about in 2020. Many parents found they had to monitor their kids much more closely to make sure they were doing their schoolwork, or become far more stringent with them. Some kids may have benefited from the proverbial kick in the pants from mom and dad. But other kids got their nudge and didn’t respond. What should a parent do in this case? Keep pushing? Nag? The question to ask then is this: “Is it helping?” If not, then it’s just continual daily tension leading nowhere. Of course that’s not a solution to anything; it just creates new problems.

Parents want their kids to get good grades for many perfectly healthy reasons: To know that their kids are being productive, expanding their intellectual horizons, and accomplishing something with their time, more concretely to get into college and move on up in life, and somewhat self-servingly as simple validation of their parenting skills. When a child doesn’t do well, and especially when the child doesn’t even appear to try, it accordingly can hit parents on many levels. Parents naturally wonder: What’s going on with my kid? Is he depressed or on drugs? Will she get into college? Is it my fault? If not, whose responsibility is it? How much should I push?

Yakobchuk Viacheslav/Shutterstock
Sometimes ice cream is the right choice
Source: Yakobchuk Viacheslav/Shutterstock

As our patient said, sometimes goals need adjusting. If you repeatedly fail to reach your goal, it is probably time to change the goal, to choose something a bit more achievable to start, or to change the plan of how you are going to get there. In our patient’s case, their child was not managing school because of depression. When we advised the patient to simply take the stress of school away and lay off her kid, the dynamic between them changed: Mom and daughter were able to connect in mutually enjoyable and more productive ways, the bond between them strengthened, and at last daughter let mom into the root of her problem—from there mom was able to help her daughter recover.

Did the kid still get bad grades for a while? Yes. But did she get mentally healthy? Yes. Moreover, she and mom got their relationship back—a relationship that they both enjoy more, benefit from, and that they can leverage to help each other. With that in place, the kid started to do better in school without constant pushes from mom about grades, and she felt better about herself and the world in general.

Bad grades come and go; so do good grades. When in doubt about what you should do as a parent, it is never a mistake to ask yourself: What is really important? Focus on that. Solid relationships and mental health are foundations for building personal success in the long term. If the foundation is not in place, then don’t expect to build anything on it. Mental health and healthy relationships come first; good grades, career success, and happiness all must be built on top of that.

More from Benjamin Cheyette, M.D., and Sarah Cheyette M.D.
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More from Benjamin Cheyette, M.D., and Sarah Cheyette M.D.
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