September 1997

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Success Doesn't Mean Being "The Best"

By Beth Weiss, Copyright 1997

Sometimes things we read really influence our thinking on a subject.

For me, the subject is parenting.

One article was from some magazine or another on parents’ dreams for their children.   The author reflected that when parents are asked what they want for their children, the same replies keep appearing: rich, successful, well-off, doctor, lawyer, professional, smart, educated—but there were some key words missing from that list: words like kind, caring, loving, gentle, nice.  Those are things we all want for our children, but don’t necessarily think to list first when we’re itemizing our hopes for our children’s futures.

The other influence was from a education textbook (focusing on college teaching, actually).  The author talked about making one’s implicit assumptions explicit, and the changes that can make in approaching teaching situations.

Both of those authors had a profound impact on my attitude about parenting.  It’s made me carefully think about what I want my children to be, what traits our family values, and then explicitly let my children know what we see as important.

Every parent wants their child to be “successful”, and I’m certainly no different there.  But I’ve kept in my mind the idea of making one’s implicit assumptions explicit, and carefully examined what traits my child need to reach that goal.  The children need to explicitly learn and internalize a definition of “successful” that incorporates our family’s values and beliefs—and to explicitly learn to reject those ideas that don’t fit.

I think our society already does a darned good job of over-teaching competitiveness and the idea of financial success.  Those concepts are everywhere, and unless strongly combatted by the parents, the children seem to soak them up through their skin: they know who runs fastest, who is tallest, who is oldest, who has the most brothers and sisters.  And so we constantly are keeping our eyes open for signs of competitiveness, and trying to replace that with the concept of doing one’s best being enough, and being best isn’t important at all.  We’re trying to teach them that being competitive is at odds with values we think are important:  gentleness, generosity, compassion, charity.

Children seem to pick up the idea that being ‘better’ is important, and eventually, that being ‘best’ is everything.  As a parent, I’ve decided that teaching my children to be successful means that one of my jobs is to de-teach that concept: being best isn’t better; being better isn’t even better.  Being nice is better.  Being fair is better.  Being honest is better. Rejoicing for other’s successes is better.

Perhaps most importantly, accepting who you are is better, and is an essential piece of personal success.  I’m not knocking self-improvement; there certainly are a few things I’d like to change about myself.  But accepting those things that are just part of who you are is an attitude and belief structure that I want my children to understand and embrace.  Training, practice, and effort go only so far, and they can only go as far as one’s own genetic makeup permits.  Striving to be the best you can be is a wonderful positive outlook on life.  Striving to be the “best of all” is in the same category as “rich”, “professional”, and “successful”: it’s based on society’s skewed sense of values—and not how I want them to define “success”.

Perhaps some of you can identify with me on this one: I’ve recently embarked on an exercise regimen, and I’m quite happy with it. I am getting into better shape, but I am never going to look like Kathy Smith, no matter how frequently I work out to her tapes.  I can be distressed about that, or I can accept it, but the facts are the facts.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t be successful at my exercise program.  I just have to define “successful” in a realistic way, and set goals that are reachable and positive, even if I’m never going to look like a Vegas show girl.

And that’s what I want to teach my children: success is setting out to do something, doing the best you can at it, and accepting and feeling good about that, and accepting and feeling good about someone else doing it just as well—or even better.  That on the road of any task, being kind and caring are the only acceptable ways to progress.  That sharing and giving are ways to get ahead in the world, in the only ways that matter.  Wealth and education are good things (really good things), but they aren’t the important ones we measure our successes by.

As the new school year starts (and I’ve never emotionally left the academic calendar), let’s all keep our goals in perspective and explicitly think about what we want to teach our children, as we work to meet our dreams of raising our loving, caring, kind children to be loving, caring, kind teens and adults.

Best wishes,


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