Achievement Is Not Necessarily An Indicator of Character

An over emphasis on achievement may ultimately deter a child's success.

Posted Sep 22, 2019

In this busy, competitive, and outcome-based culture, it is easy to focus on a child’s performance as a measure of his or her success as a person. Perhaps the child earns straight A's and plays for an elite travel volleyball team. The obvious priority for the parent may be clearing a work schedule in order to drive to volleyball practices, games and tournaments. Checking grades, making sure the child has a clean uniform and healthy meals, enforcing a reasonable bedtime, and helping her carve out time for friends and social life are time-consuming tasks. Setting the child up for success is almost like having another full-time job. Is there time for anything else?

A parent does not want a child to fail, feel disappointed, fall behind, or be left out, so the motivation to help the child succeed is strong. Occasionally, a child’s success strokes a parent’s own ego, fueling the parent’s need to facilitate the child's achievement of these goals. Yet, the trait that may ultimately determine a child’s success in life often remains uncultivated. This is character. Current research indicates that traits of narcissism and entitlement are increasing in children. These qualities are also understood as character deficits.

Simply because a child is successful academically, athletically, or otherwise, does not instantly qualify the child as a “good kid.” Achievement may or may not be an indicator of effort, which factors into character.  Also, while being a team player is a valiant characteristic, it may not translate off of the field. A high achieving child may or may not have a deep conscientiousness for others, selflessness, resilience, thoughtfulness, empathy, remorse when he or she impacts others negatively, accountability, and a strong tendency to want to repair a rupture in a relationship. These are several qualities which constitute strong character.

Yet, this does not mean parents should refrain from making sacrifices to help a child succeed. It simply means parents need to balance the affirmations regarding achievement with validation about who the child is, which requires being in tune with his or her feelings, inner world, deep conflicts, anxieties, failures, and successes.

For example, when a child fails it is important to temporarily suspend the teaching moment (explaining to the child why he or she failed), and empathize with the child’s disappointment. “You are disappointed. I get it. I would be too.” Remind the child that missteps are human. “Everybody makes mistakes.” Reinforce that it is not the child’s successes and failures that count, it is who he or she is as a person. “You are a team player and you hustle. That means more than a win.” Follow the empathy with encouragement, “Keep at it, honey, the success will come.”

When a child receives empathy, he or she feels less alone, connected to the parent, and is more likely to trust and recognize feeling states which solidify self-esteem and confidence. This empowers the child, creating a resilient child who can get up after falling down and forge ahead. It also allows the child to feel closer to the parent and more comfortable opening up in the future. Helping the child learn from mistakes is an important step, but it should occur after the child has had support with his or her feelings. The child will be less defensive and more open to implementing the advice, which fosters good character and success. How a child handles failure is of paramount importance in terms of future success

It is important for a parent to make a conscious distinction between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is simply understanding and respecting a child’s feelings. Conveying this understanding to the child is healing. Empathy does not require that rules are bent or provisions are made. Alternatively, sympathy or feeling sorry for the child tempts a parent to fix the problem for the child. This enables a child and may foster a victim type of mentality.

I remember a few experiences in my childhood when my own parents sent a clear message that achievements were not as important as being a good person. One incident stands out. I grew up in the 80's, so big hair was the style. One morning I spent too much time in front of the mirror curling, spraying, and teasing. I heard the school bus rumble past my house, so I grabbed my bookbag, ran outside where my mom was watering the tomato plants, and shouted, “Mom! You have to drive me to school! I missed the bus! Hurry up!” She looked at me and said, “Excuse me?” Frustrated with her inaction, I yelled at her again, “Mom! I can’t be late for the first period! My teacher takes ten percent off of my grade if I’m tardy! It will mess up my GPA if my grade falls in that class! Hurry up! Get in the car!”

My mom looked at me and said, “Ask me nicely, honey.”

Again, her lack of action enraged me. “Come on!” I yelled angrily.

Standing her ground, my mom looked at me and said “I’d rather have a child with mediocre grades than a child who is mean. You are walking to school, my dear.”

Dumbfounded, I lost it again. “How could you do this to me? You are ruining my life! This is your fault!”

“Get to school,” she said firmly.

High school was two miles away and I spent the first mile crying and blaming my mom, but by the time I walked to the corner of Gibbons and Euclid, I realized that I was the person at fault. I spent the second mile feeling extreme remorse about the way I had been treating my mom. After school, I apologized, we hugged and talked, and she empathized with my need to achieve. “I know you worry that you are not good enough. It’s hard for you right now. I understand. These years are not easy. I’m here for you and I love you.”

I can’t say that I was never late again, but I constantly remind myself that my strides towards achievement do not take precedence over the way in which I treat other human beings. My mom loved me more than my achievements which is something I’ll never forget.