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The One Percent

One afternoon, way back when my daughter was in kindergarten, I found myself at the playground discussing homework with two other moms. At one point in the conversation, one of them, the mother of one of Maya's close friends, made this comment :"I don't care if my child does well in school. I don't care what grades she gets. She learns different from other kids. She has different strengths and I am fine with that."

At the time I remember thinking "Well that is fine for you but I have higher expectations for my child. I want her to try her hardest in school. If she does her best and gets B's that is fine. But I want her to try for A's."

It is not the actual grades that matter. In fact, I would support a system that did away with letter and number grades in favor of more individual assessments. But numbers on report cards are what we have now. They are what teachers are currently using to tell both me and my child's future teachers how well she knows stuff. So while I do not care if there is a 2 on Maya's paper instead of a 4, I absolutely care WHY it is there. Is it because she does not understand math? Is it there because she is being lazy? Is she not doing as well as she COULD be doing, and if so, how can I help her get there? Those are the things that are important to me. Those are the things that grades are supposed to represent.

Thankfully, I happen to be blessed with a child who does well in school. Right now, in second grade, Maya still enjoys learning. She enjoys being a "good listener". She does her homework without too much drama. She loves reading and is proud to be good at it. I am sure this easy period will not last forever, so I am trying to enjoy it now, while I can, before the inevitable "I hate school" whining sets in.

I am well aware of how lucky I am.

Every so often Maya complains about one of the kids in her class who does not listen to the teacher.  So and so is "always in trouble". She doesn't "have any points". And although she does not say it, I can tell that part of her is thinking "Why won't these other kids just get it like I do? Why are they slowing me down? "

In my karate classes, there is a similar distribution. There are the kids at the top, the ones who are the highest ranked, who take the most classes, who work the hardest. They are often also the ones who know all the material, who kick the highest, who do the best pushups. They are the superstars and they are awesome!  Then there are the ones who learn a bit slower, who have trouble standing still, the ones who lose a full minute of focus every time the bus goes by out on Columbus Avenue. Mostly the kids at the top are humble in their excellence. But sometimes it is there, that attitude. "Why don't these other kids know what I know?" And occasionally, because they are children, there is giggling. There is a mumbled comment here and there. There is arrogance.

Although I do not think they mean to be, every so often, the kids at the top are downright obnoxious.

We parents spend an awful lot of time encouraging our kids to do well. We want them to work hard, to try their best, to succeed. In school, we measure that success in grades, points accumulated, compliments from the teacher. In karate class it is even more transparent; with belts and sometimes (although not in my dojo)  trophies. We want our kids to win, both literally and metaphorically.

So we push them to do their best, whatever their best is. For most of us, our child will fall somewhere in the middle, and we will be content. (Despite who her parents are, Maya is not the best in her karate class. I am mostly ok with this. ) A few of us will have a child who is struggling to keep up, and for these poor kids, school will be a place of frustration and disappointment. And then, a few of us will be the parents of the one percent, the ones who come out on top, either because they work the hardest or because they are just born with natural gifts. These parents will remember to be proud. They will remember to be encouraging. But perhaps there is one lesson they will forget to teach. 

All second graders know what "being mean" is. They know it is wrong to punch their buddy in the nose. They know it is wrong to laugh when their friend falls down. They understand that words like "stupid" and "fat" and "ugly" can cause hurt feelings and tears. But the kindness I am talking about is less obvious. 

If we are going to teach kids to rise to the top I think we also have to teach them how to behave once they get there. We have to teach them how to be nice.

It is a very tricky balance. We want them to be proud of their accomplishments without lording them over everyone else. We want them to perform well without showing off. We want them to know all the answers without acting like a bratty know it all. Ultimately we want the ones at the top to be humble, to be comfortable there, and to use their powers for good. To help others get there too. 

To borrow a phrase from competitive sports, we want them to "win like they have done it before".

So how do you tell a kid that you are so very proud of how well they know their kata, but that you would be just as proud if they taught it to the kid standing next to them. That although you love how they keep getting to mount, you would love it even more if they helped their partner climb up there too. 

When our kids speed through the math worksheet because it is crazy easy, we are quick to offer them more work. We are quick to call the teacher, to make sure she is aware of all the ways our kid needs to be challenged. 

How many of you have called the teacher to say this: "Hi Mrs. Smith. I notice that my daughter finds her homework super easy. Perhaps you could pair her up with one of the kids in class who is struggling and she could help them out?"

I know I haven't.

Maybe we all should. Just a little. Just enough to make sure that our kids grow up to be super success stories...who are also really really nice to each other.

Its a lot to ask I know. But if we really want them to change the world, it is a lesson we cannot afford to miss. 

In about two years I will start promoting my little ones to black belt. I will have taught them over 15 katas. They will know how to spar without getting exhausted. They will stand straight and Osu loud and look absolutely phenomenal. I will be so overwhelmingly proud of them that there will be no room in the dojo for anyone to sit. 

But if by then I have not also taught them how to be a team, how to work together, and most importantly, how to care about each other than I have failed as a teacher. I want them to do their absolute best out there. And then, I want them to look at the kid next to them and be so proud of how well their friend is doing too. And to know that neither one of them could have made it there without the other.

I know they are just children.
But I have really high expectations for them.


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