Rainbows are Rowan’s symbol for July. We tend to associate rainbows with hope, with a pot of gold, with something positive on the horizon. In order to reach the rainbow, we often have to work hard, delay fun, and have a strong, inner drive.
Perhaps we can enlist the help of Angela Duckworth to explore these concepts further. She taught us in her 2016 book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance that the ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals is the greatest predictor of success, greater than academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, test scores, and IQ. Gritty students succeed, and failure strengthens grit like no other crucible. So, when our kids fail, perhaps we should get in the habit of asking them to reflect and take stock on what led to the failure and what lessons they learned from their mistakes.
We can also dust off Jessica Lahey’s 2015 book The Gift of Failure: How The Best Parents Learn To Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, remembering that she suggests: “first, rewards don’t work, because humans perceive them as attempts to control behavior, which undermines intrinsic motivation. Second, human beings are more likely to stick with tasks that arise out of their own free will and personal choice.” Lahey suggests that “if intrinsic motivation happens when kids feel autonomous, competent, and connected to the people and world around them, those three needs must inform our parenting.” As opening day of school begins to creep towards us, I’ve decided to focus on how to help my kids feel autonomous as they start the new school year.
My son will be starting 9th grade this year. He is a fiercely independent guy who does not enjoy any meddling whatsoever from his parents. My middle daughter will be in 11th grade and is already internally motivated. Always has been. As I approach the task below with all of my teens, I will gently remind them of what Lahey summarizes so succinctly for us about the capabilities of the adolescent brain: “Adolescents can hold multiple possibilities and ideas in their brain at once and consider how those ideas might play out before launching willy-nilly into a plan,” as they did when they were just elementary school students. So, engaging with them in the art of self-reflection makes sense because we know they are both old enough now to be deliberate in some of their planning. My almost 20 year old is a lost cause. She’s fully cooked and about to start her second year in college now. Kidding.
I’ve been pondering this notion of how to find our rainbow and how to help our kids find theirs...Consider meandering through this list of questions with your adolescent as August approaches. Keep in mind that you are just suggesting a peak over the shoulder together, but that he is in the driver’s seat on this task. “Locate your mute button” as Lahey advises, and use it wisely. Notice the emphasis here is on learning from past failures and using that wisdom to evolve.
1) What went well for you last year in terms of building reliable friendships? What tactics do you think you should repeat this year? (Reliable friends are safe, smart, and supportive friends no matter who’s around).
2) What tactics backfired on you, socially? What do you think went wrong and what did you take away from that experience?
3) What went well for you last year in terms of study habits and organizational decisions? What habits do you think you should repeat this year?
4) Where did you go astray last year in terms of studying, classes, time management? What do you think went wrong and what did you take away from that experience?
5) In what areas do you want to improve this year, to beat your record last year, to impress yourself?
6) What do you hope a teacher whom you respect might say about you halfway through this year? What will you have to do to earn those words of praise?
7) What do you hope a trusted friend might notice about you halfway through this year? What will you have to do to earn those words of admiration ?
8) What about a sibling? What do you hope she or he will notice about you as you mature through this next school year? How will he or she know that you’re growing up?
9) What areas of conflict do you predict you will have this school year with your parents? Your teachers? Your friends? Your siblings? Other adults in your life? What role can you play in anticipating these conflicts, communicating clearly and promptly about them, and resolving them in a respectful way that still honors who you are trying to become?
10)How will you know when you are starting to veer off track this school year? What are the subtle signs or symptoms that will tell you that you’ve lost motivation somewhere? What will be the best way to anchor you and inspire you again?
A quick word on asking for help. As an adult who’s lapped the mid-century mark, I’ve learned that the smartest people in the world are the ones who know their own limitations, the ones who are not afraid to ask for help on their journey towards their pot of gold. What if we could, somehow, collectively, convince our kids that the more they ask for help, the smarter they will appear? Unfortunately, some of our kids hit a speedbump, lose focus and stamina, forget that others love to provide answers and solutions, and they fizzle out. They stray from their journey to their destination, and convince themselves that they aren’t smart enough or good enough or funny enough to do what they set out to achieve. Just imagine if a little elf could hop down from the rainbow at that point, and remind them: “You’re at the good part now! This is when you ask for help and you come ‘round the bend and discover the next challenge. Don’t give up now, sweetheart! So many people would be honored to help you, if only you would ask.” Ahhhhh, we’d all breathe a collective sigh, wouldn’t we?
Abby Wombach, recently released her book called The Wolfpack. Abby Wambach became a champion because of her incredible talent as a soccer player. A two-time Olympic gold medalist, she holds the world record for international goals for both female and male soccer players. She became an icon because of her remarkable wisdom as a leader. Based on her inspiring, viral 2018 commencement speech to Barnard College’s graduates – Abby Wambach’s message to all women is: If we keep playing by the Old Rules, we will never change the game. Abby reminds us to celebrate the achievements of other women. When one woman succeeds, we all succeed. Instead of feeling threatened by another girl’s achievement, we can applaud her and know that she’s raising the standards for our entire gender.
Finally, and your kids will roll their eyes at this suggestion, ask your kids to write a letter to their future self. Talk to them about how they might find their rainbow, how they might use grit to persevere. The September 2019 version of them will write to the May 2020 version of them, noting hopes, goals, concerns. Putting pen to paper in this act of self reflection fires up our drive to outdo ourselves, to one-up our younger selves. A healthy internal competition is a great motivator because it’s 100% intrinsic and autonomous.