The Gold Star

One of the first things you learn in kindergarten is that if you do a good job you get a gold star. Now, many years later, as Pavlov predicted, I still look for that shiny piece of foil in its grown-up equivalent.

Growing up, I was fortunate to be offered enthusiastic praise for my achievements. Some children never know such encouragement. But as the praise circulated around my accomplishments, I grew to believe that you are loved for what you achieve, not for who you are. And sadly, even with such awareness, it’s difficult to break the bond with the programming.

Recently, a friend nodded with understanding as I confessed my ailment. She responded by telling me what one of her friends had told her: “You constantly act as if you have to earn your place on the planet. You don’t realize you get it just by virtue of being here.”

And then it was my turn to nod, for the words resonated deep within me. They made me smile. They took the edge off my concerns.

The next morning, while driving my son to school, I looked over and told him that I thought he was a really cool person, that I enjoy his humor and his sensitivity, his inquisitive mind, the way he treats his friends – assorted words of approval geared at focusing on his qualities and behavior rather than his accomplishments. And in the way that only a teenager can manage, he looked at me kind of pleased but also really perplexed, as if his eyes were saying, “Where the hell did this come from?

I didn’t want to tell my son that my conscious words of love were a backlash against my own sense of unworthiness between periods of clearly defined achievement. I didn’t want to confess my attachment to the belief that I must continuously find a way to add things to my resume to feel relevant to the world. I didn’t want to admit that my words came from my awareness of the potential damage of society’s specific view of success. I didn’t want to tell my son any of it. It could freak a kid out. Hell, it kind of freaks me out.

Instead of confessing my affliction, I am aiming to program my son to see himself as deserving of love for reasons beyond what he achieves, to break the cycle of this common belief that achievement leads to acceptance and love. I want to spare my son my fate, and in the process, to reprogram my way of looking at my own life, to feel better about where I am along the way to my goals, to maybe allow the goals to mean less, to maybe even find a way to revisit the goals.

At the same time, I recognize I’m only one part of the equation. Teachers praise student accomplishments. Society holds up benchmarks that make us try harder, press harder, feel behind the pack. It’s hard to shut it all out. It’s hard to silence the comparison ghost.

But lately I’m succeeding. A wondrous calm is washing over my life. I’m enjoying the uncertainty and the mystery. The attempts in new arenas outside my programmed comfort zone make me smile. I’m drunk on possibility.

However, I must confess that the possibility points to possible success. Oops. Well, I’m a newbie here. I’ve got years of learning to undo.

But still, I’m having fun. I’m spewing out the right words to my son to make him see that taking the risk is as much of an accomplishment as any outcome. Any. And when I say that, I can almost fully believe it. Almost. Pretty nice progress in the ‘Can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ department.

In the back of my mind, I’m prepared for the possibility that the subtle teaching may not fully work on my son. I may have to come clean and tell him how attached I grew through the years to my definition of success. I may have to issue some concrete warnings of danger signs to look for, such as constant quests for overachievement, to remind him of the courage it takes to try something risky and fail. To point out that failing isn’t always failure, that not winning can be winning.

Almosts can point us in new – and better – directions. I look back on all the things I’ve tried that didn’t quite go right, and even in typing those words I see I contradict my premise. ‘Go right.’ The things that didn’t go right made me adjust my way, and lead to my next step and my next step.

And as in all instances where I think I'm teaching my son, I'm really teaching myself. I guess contrary to what the book says, all I needed to know I didn’t learn in kindergarten.


JP (mom) said...

You have a great dialogue going with your son ...and, I bet that one day, when he & you are both ready, you will be able to tell him more about where your fears come from. Your story will unfold for him, when he is ready, when you are ready and when it is meant to be... Lovely post. much peace & love, JP

Anonymous said...

This is really timely because nowadays, children are rewarded for the most ridiculous things, so that no one knows what it's like to not win, 'everyone's a winner' and that makes for an uneven balance as well.
I'm continually trying to reinforce in my own young kid, that it's alright to not to do something perfect, that it's the act of doing it, that trying your best is what counts. She doesn't buy it yet, but like you, I'm convinced that if I continue with this type of talk, that eventually my words will become her words and she'll be more available to take a risk.

Great post here Deezee.

Anonymous said...

I so like this post! Kudos to you for recognizing it ~ and even more importantly, doing something about it. Your son is a lucky kid. If it would be okay for me to say, I don't think there's anything wrong with being "real" with your kids. They will appreciate your honesty. Telling your son about your reasons for feeling as you do wouldn't be out of line at all.


-Chani (Thailand Gal)

Anonymous said...

That's a lot to think about.

Anonymous said...

Here through Chani's site, very much needing to hear this. I'm going on 5 (years) eons as an at-home parent, and I'm feeling like I need to DO something or I'm going to lose myself.

Girlplustwo said...

so miraculously reflective and poignant...your writing stuns me time and time again.

and what a good mum you are.

Emily said...

You get right to the heart of the matter. I often find myself working for the gold star...

Anonymous said...

gold star whore, here, ready to confess.
:) i love so much the idea that in teaching our kids we're really teaching ourselves. it's a gift our kids give us, i guess--the chance to offer the healing we need most ourselves.

Trouble said...

It's funny how I find myself doing so many of the same things with my own kids, trying to counter the performance-based love I was taught as a child...to let them know they are loveable and wonderful to me, exactly as they are, even though my daughter brought home (ugh) almost straight C's in her last report card. We had words about her expectations for herself and her future goals, but I never said I was disappointed in her. I told her that her grades are a reflection of how she sees herself, whether she is willing to work for what she wants, or not.

But that I will love her, regardless.

It's a conversation my parents would never have had with me as a child. In a sense, it's like an unpredictable experiment. If I do x, will y result? I don't know. I won't know, for years.

But I do want to avoid the predictable outcome of a + b = c that I experienced.