By Debra-Lynn B. Hook
Knight Ridder Newspapers
When our firstborn child was in second grade, a school counselor told us he had a high IQ.
Visions of our young son as a nuclear physicist, an astronaut or the laboratory researcher who cures AIDS danced in our puffed-up heads.
"Just remember," the counselor cautioned. "It's not enough to be smart. It's all about how you apply yourself."
And so, being the dedicated parents that we are, we helped our son "apply" himself.
We encouraged him when he made straight A's, all through elementary school. We boasted to relatives how bright he was, and they in turn, reminded him every chance they got. We toasted him when he won awards at school and high-fived him when he read all of Harry Potter in one night. When he told us, at a very early age, that he planned to earn an academic scholarship to his dad's alma mater, the University of Michigan, we were proud of his initiative.
"Remember," we'd remind him. "It's all about how you apply yourself."
As the years passed, we watched our son "succeed."
We also watched this formerly easy-going child get nervous, increasingly so. When a school paper came back less than perfect, he would actually bang his head on his desk in frustration.
It wasn't until his second, miserable year of middle school that we began to consider just what it was our son was applying himself to.
"I'm tired of being perfect, Mom!" he yelled one day on the way home from school.
In our modern, industrialized world, success is measured by the bulk of one's financial portfolio, which is earned by having a good job, which is acquired by earning a diploma from a good university, which is obtained by making good grades that begin being recorded in kindergarten.
Like most parents who want their children to "succeed," my husband and I got caught up in this vision, partly because we, too, value education and the effects of applying oneself to it.
And yet, we learned the hard way, there can be a fine line between promoting good grades and making them the end-all, between encouraging a child to be all that he can be, and unwittingly sending the message that worth is contingent upon performance, between giving him every opportunity to succeed, and putting unrealistic expectations for success on him.
Our son's outburst helped us realize he needed permission to ease up on himself. He needed to know that just because he's smart doesn't mean he has to be perfect, that being imperfect does not somehow compromise character.
He needed to hear us say we would still love him if he brought home B and even C papers. He needed to bring home a few of those papers, and survive.
He needed to believe the local university, where his dad teaches political science, is an acceptable place for him to study to be a high school history teacher, like he's thinking these days. We needed to believe that, too.
Our child is in ninth grade now. Like a lot of kids his age, he spends his time playing music and sports. He's in too many extra-curricular activities to count. He hangs out with friends. He plays foosball with his little brother in the basement after school. He engages in political debates with his father and talks about the effects of transcendentalist thinking on 19th century literature with his mother.
He also makes A's, B's and yes, sometimes, C's - although recently he told us he wants to try for straight A's again. My husband and I told him we are ready to help - in whatever positive ways we can. I hope never again to contribute to an atmosphere that provokes a child to bite his nails to the quick because of an 87 on a math test.
It's been 22 years since Dr. David Elkind wrote the classic, "The Hurried Child." But the message is timeless. Neither I, nor do I think would Elkind, believe I should quit helping my child be the best that he can be.
Along the way, though, I have to remember he is not only a child, he is a unique individual with a variety of strengths, limitations and ways of interpreting the world.
Childhood is a time for learning, all kinds of things, and, yes, for succeeding, in all kinds of ways.
A good friend remarked to me the other day that our son seemed happy.
Now that's what I call success.
© 2004, The State (Columbia, S.C.).
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.