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on Leading the Next Generation


Why Parents’ Priorities Are Hurting Students

This article is a simple reminder of a timeless truth:

“What gets rewarded gets repeated.”

My generation placed an emphasis on several priorities that I believe have backfired on our children. While the goals were well intentioned, they unwittingly manipulated our kids to value lower priorities over higher ones and to value the end, not the means. In fact, for too many high school and college students, the end justifies the means in almost every life context. We unwittingly taught our children to push for results without valuing the process.

Allow me to offer an example.

photo credit: 100_1603.jpg via photopin (license)

photo credit: 100_1603.jpg via photopin (license)

Too many parents have decided that getting into a great college should be the number one goal of a high school student. This priority led our students to do whatever it took to please Mom and Dad. The value turned into behavior:

  1. We pushed for higher scores on standardized tests.
  2. We paid for SAT prep at a special tutoring facility
  3. We prioritized academic success over everything.

I wonder if this is a misplaced priority. Our kids observe and listen to what we value, often taking their cues from our obsession with their performance:

  1. Kids find a way to appease their parents, even if it means buying papers.
  2. They figure out how to beat the system: high grades but low retention.
  3. They play a sport even if they’d rather do something else they enjoy more.
  4. They do the extra-curricular activity but deep down are miserable.
  5. They have higher rates of plagiarism than past generations.

From what I’ve read, this seems to have been a part of the problem with the rise in both youth anxiety and school cheating. Parents demand results; kids feel angst . . . and they cheat to cope with their inabilities. It’s become epidemic in some areas. Three out of four students in America admit to cheating in order to get through college.

A Statement That Stopped Me in My Tracks

These thoughts raced through my mind recently when I saw a sign hanging in public. The quote forced me to stop and think about what’s really important in life and what sustains our civilization. It simply said:

“We need to care less about whether our children are academically gifted and more about whether they sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.”

I quickly sped down memory lane, trying to remember what my wife and I had said to our children as they made their way through school. We certainly encouraged them to study hard and do their very best in each class. We also encouraged them, however, to focus on behaviors and outcomes that were in their control. We taught them: “You will become what you are becoming right now.”

Displaying empathy for marginalized kids was one of those behaviors we talked about more than once. It was also something we tried to practice, both with neighbors who lived close by and taking trips to serve the homeless at Safehouse Outreach in Atlanta. My son Jonathan has always been drawn to reach out to those on the fringes who appear lonely, unpopular, or unfriended. My daughter Bethany has always stuck up for the person who appears different or quirky. Now that they’re both in their twenties, I am as proud of these predispositions as I was their good grades. Classrooms can only teach so much. These are actions that forge your character. Watching my two adult children today—I am pleased that somehow the right priorities stuck.

So, I just want to ask you: What do you emphasize in your home or school? Is it simply hard skills like math or science, or is it something they may end up needing every time they meet someone new? What message do you send them with your affirmation or criticism? Let me remind you of a timeless principle—what gets rewarded gets repeated.

What Really Matters

Deanna was a high school student who usually made good grades, but she stood out most to her teachers for her compassion. They all noticed the way she reached out to fellow students who didn’t seem to understand a subject. She consistently took time to be there for classmates who needed help, or encouragement or, perhaps, they just needed another person with whom to sit. Deanna lived to serve others.

One semester, her chemistry teacher was forced to give her a poor grade. He hated to do so, since Deanna worked harder than any student in his class. But, alas, she had earned a D, and he knew he had to grade fairly. His statement on her report card said it all. Next to the D, he wrote a note for both Deanna and her parents to see:

“We cannot all be chemists, but oh, how we would all love to be Deannas.”

Lets make sure we’re emphasizing what really matters and not misplacing our priorities.

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  1. Mark Kalpakgian on September 27, 2016 at 11:34 am

    I would be careful about separating academic achievement from service and kindness. It creates a false dichotomy, an either/or option. One of the ends proper to education is academic achievement and therefore it’s always important. The tried and true maxim is that truth, goodness and beauty are inseparable. The real problems happen when this separation is attempted. For example, when the pursuit of truth eclipses goodness or ignores the beautiful.

    • Tim Elmore on October 10, 2016 at 2:52 pm

      Great point, Mark. Academic achievement is important. I hope this article helped bridge the separation that is current in many educational settings. I’ve seen the dichotomy too many times, with most adults choosing the academic-only option. What I loved about the Deanna story was that she strove for high academic scores and in the process developed life skills.

      Thank you for furthering the conversation.

  2. Kim Brackin on September 28, 2016 at 3:23 am

    I think this article is spot on! As parents, we should guide and support our kids – not live vicariously through them. It’s important to read the signs of what really interests your child and support them toward being a great human being!

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Why Parents' Priorities Are Hurting Students