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Teach kids perfection isn't the goal, persistence is

Originally published August 17, 2023 in Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A version of this article appears in print Section A, Page 13 of the AJC on August 22, 2023 with the headline: Teach kids persistence, not perfection, is goal.

It was not what I wanted to see on the first day of school. I walked my kids to the front door of the school building and was greeted by a flurry of front office staff and parents scurrying around to clean up a mess where a student’s nervous tummy had brought up their breakfast on the concrete.

As school gears up for a new year and backpacks are loaded down, hopefully kids have packed the most important school supply this year, grit. It won’t be found on shelves or an Amazon wish list, but without it, no real work will be done in the schoolhouse.

There is a dangerous wave of thought in the country today that is leading kids and youths to focus on their struggles. To be defined by them. This is not an intentional way of thinking, but it is a byproduct of how our culture has responded to difficulty.

Adults have seen the statistics looming large about mental health in youths certainly exacerbated by the global pandemic. As shown in recent data in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, there are alarming trends of anxiety and depression unlike generations previous.

Nearly 20% of children and young people ages 3-17 in the United States have a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder, and suicidal behaviors among high school students increased more than 40% in the decade before 2019, according to the National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report.

There is no doubt our youths are plagued by mental health challenges right now. In response to that, parents, teachers and caregivers collectively sprinted with kids in tow to the therapists’ office.

And rightfully so.

Who wouldn’t if they see a loved one in distress go full speed to the nearest help? If we break a bone, wouldn’t we drive as fast as we can to the ER to get an X-ray? If we get a deep gash, wouldn’t we rush to urgent care for stitches?

However, mental health is not linear, it’s far more complex.

Thousands of this generation of children and youths have been trained to think similarly. Even children are instantly self-diagnosing with clinical terms that most trained professionals pause before using.

Out of the mouths of babes come, “I’m feeling anxious and out of breath ... I’m sure it’s a panic attack.” “I can’t sleep ... I think I need some melatonin.” “I can’t concentrate in school ... sounds like ADHD to me.” “Mom, stop gaslighting me.” And adults alike are saying, “Why do you not do what I say? ... You must have oppositional defiant disorder.” “You never remember your homework … I think you have an executive function deficit!”

And the stories go on. An entire generation of young people has successfully been therapized and pathologized. And it doesn’t seem to be helping.

Is the answer to push through, denying uncomfortable realities? An absolute and unequivocal “NO.”

This is the mistake of generations before: They denied the reality of anxiety, depression, sexual confusion, trauma, etc. These habits led to acute dysfunction from suppressing the reality of pain. Uncomfortable emotions and thoughts shouldn’t be ignored and concurrently shouldn’t direct us to lead our lives in the paths of least resistance.

The missing link that could unite the two ends of the spectrum? Grit.

There is a necessary component of using psychological services and therapies, even medications to help get us to a place of wholeness. Clinical pathologies are real and should be addressed, never ignored. Mental health diagnoses and treatment are necessary in many instances and are critical on the path leading to health.

We must balance awareness of mental health with grit.

The issue in question isn’t clinically significant behavior, it is the normal discomforts and challenges of life that have bled into the clinical arena, it’s over-pathologizing normal behavior and explaining every aspect of life in terms of mental illness. Common struggle has become a clinically significant concern in the minds of many parents, caregivers and teachers.

Developing endurance through hard things is not easy, which is one reason parents and caregivers are ready to drive their kiddo straight to the therapist’s office for common problems instead of helping kids grow through it. We want to mow down obstacles, rig the playing field for their ease and then hand them the gold medal. There is a level of fear response to discomfort, it’s human nature to want to eliminate discomfort, especially for those we love. We innately know that pain and suffering are to be avoided if possible.

However, resilience is like a muscle that must be used to grow. Parents, teachers and caregivers can help their ability to do hard things by not being afraid of challenges themselves. Teaching kids how to frame struggle is crucial in giving kids the tools they need to survive school and progress into healthy adulthood. The Olympians and performers whom children and teens want to emulate have not gotten there on their first try. Effortlessly floating through life and landing on top is a myth, even though through the lens of social media, it might appear as such.

The pattern for training persistence is as follows: do something challenging, perform poorly, pick yourself up and then try again. Repeat.

Perfection isn’t the goal, persistence is.

Kids thrive when they accumulate the small successes that persistence brings. This shift in mindset is essential; from pathologizing our kids’ common struggles to becoming parents, teachers and caregivers who are confident in kids’ and youths’ abilities to do hard things. Kids need to know that we believe in their ability to get through it and come out on the other side. All the while keenly aware that sometimes mental health professionals are needed and clinical attention is required.

This school year will likely hold many obstacles and distractions. Preparing our kids with the knowledge that there will be difficulties and we believe that they can face them with grit and determination just might be the most important tool we can pack in their bags this year.

Hopefully, the anxious tummy that made a mess on the sidewalk recovered and gave it another go.


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