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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Larson

Winning Isn’t Everything. Or Is It?

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

“Too often, today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good.”

I stumbled onto this quote earlier this week after reading a research paper by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The paper proposed several changes to the college admission process which would focus less on test scores and individual accomplishments, and more on personal responsibility and community impact.

Yet too often our society seems to focus on college as the end goal for our children. This puts incredible pressure on our students to stand out during the college admission process and build the perfect “resume” which highlights grades, test scores, AP/IB courses and extracurricular activities.

But getting our kids accepted to college versus ensuring our kids are prepared for college can be two different things.

So what can we do to make sure our kids are prepared for college and their life beyond?

Looking Beyond the Resume

The phrase "build a person, not a resume" was coined by college advisor Valerie Erde. In her article she describes how many of today’s parents push their children towards specific activities, some beginning in elementary school, because “they believe those things will ‘impress’ college admissions committees.”

But having the perfect resume is no guarantee of college admission, let alone success in college and life beyond. The author emphasizes a need to focus on the person and encourages parents to involve their kids in “activities and courses that reflect who they genuinely are, not who they think colleges want them to be.”

With two kids in college, I know I’m guilty of resume-building with our kids. But looking at today’s college application process, it’s hard to ignore the checklist of classes and activities that you know will give them a greater chance of a college acceptance.

I recall a conversation with my daughter when she was a junior in high school. Her grades didn’t quite meet our expectations one semester, and we pointed this out to her. Her comment was something like, “If I wanted straight As, I would take different classes. I can do that if that’s all that matters to you. But I thought this was about challenging myself and exploring new interests.”

She was so right.

5 Tips to Develop Character

Imagine for a minute your best friends, and what you love most about them. Imagine a favorite colleague, boss or neighbor. What characteristics do they share that make you want to be around them? What makes them successful in their professional career or personal life?

It's unlikely it has anything to do with grades, test scores or the number of medals they won in high school. As we imagine our own kids in five, ten or twenty years, what type of person do we hope they become?

1. Let Your Kids Fail

We hear this phrase often although I always get hung up on the word ‘fail.’ To me, failing means you give up. And that is not what we want our kids to experience. We do want our kids to fall down, to experience loss, or struggle to meet a goal. But the lesson we hope they take from this is in the recovery. We want them to learn how to find that inner strength that allows them to get back up and try again.

2. Let Your Kids See You Fail

Our kids can learn a lot about recovering from failure by watching and modeling the behavior of others. Think about the last time you struggled with something. How did you handle it? And did you share your experience with your kids? As an entrepreneur, I have endless ‘hits and misses’ with my businesses. I share these stories with my kids. My hope is they will not be afraid to try something new, and they will also learn you don’t always get it right the first time.

3. Encourage Your Kids to Seek Challenges

Find opportunities to push your kids out of their comfort zone. This might be a physical activity or character building. We’ve hiked fourteeners with our kids, and when they were young we didn’t always make it to the top. But we always came back the next year and tried again. You can also consider volunteer opportunities, new friendships or creative projects. Sometimes just learning how to do something ‘new’ can be the challenge.

4. Help Your Kids Explore New Interests

There’s nothing more important than letting your child explore as they grow up. Help them seek out new interests. Observe what they're most curious about, whether it be electives they want to take at school, books they read, or social media influencers they follow. Discovering what they don’t like is just as important as discovering what they love.

5. Show Your Kids How to Ask For Help

Never be afraid to ask for help and modeling this behavior can ensure your kids will be more comfortable asking for help if they need it. Ask for help preparing dinner or getting ready for a trip. Call a professional for home or car repairs. Phone a friend when you’ve had a tough day. Stay current on medical visits, therapy and other activities which support your own mental health.

Join the Discussion

As much as we’d like to bubble wrap our kids, protect them during their childhood years, and ensure they notch up some wins, the reality is they will eventually be on their own. And life is not fair. Learning how to deal with hardship, how to be a good friend, to know what brings them joy and when to seek help are all important skills for life beyond their schooling years.

We’d love to hear from you! What are some of the ways you’ve encouraged your child to seek new challenges?

About the Author

Jennifer Larson is an entrepreneur, charter school founder and mother to four children. Connect with her @startupjen.

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