PCA 2020

Talking to Children About a Job Well Done

At all stages of life, people strive to experience and achieve success; however, there is no universal measure of success, suggesting that different people can perceive and evaluate success in unique ways. For children and adults alike, the way in which we measure and understand our success significantly shapes our understanding of our strengths, abilities, goals, and values. For parents, then, it is important to reflect on how they may be discussing and measuring success with their children as they endeavor to support their children find a sense of happiness and fulfillment in their lives. 

External metrics of success

Early on in a child’s life, success is very frequently understood based on external metrics, such as report card grades, feedback on assignments and exams, awards won, and rankings in the class. These external metrics provide young people and their parents with valuable information about areas of strength, opportunities for growth and improvement, and a lens through which to recognize payoff for their efforts. As children grow older, external evaluations of success play a key role in communicating performance measures to others, such as prospective universities or employers. When talking to their children about achievements, setbacks, and opportunities for change, parents often ground these discussions within the context of external measures of success and use these external metrics as the basis for rewards and consequences.

Internal metrics of success

Internal metrics of success can provide valuable information about a child’s level of fulfillment relating to any given activity. Internal metrics are often established through questions such as: What was your experience like when you worked on that task? What are your thoughts on your performance? How enjoyable/satisfying/fulfilling was that activity? Rather than focusing on an external performance evaluation, internal metrics  seek to learn about a child’s personal gratification and fulfillment relating to a task and their satisfaction with their engagement, approach, and performance on that task. 

Although much can be learned about strengths and abilities through external evaluations, children often have their own personal perceptions of their passions, values, and engagement, based on their internal experiences of working through an activity. While it isn’t always possible to avoid less enjoyable and gratifying activities, discussions of internal metrics can help children become more attuned to their own sources of happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment, as well as the personal qualities and characteristics they aspire to demonstrate when working through a given task, all of which play a key role when it comes to living a content and successful life. 

Takeaway tip for parents: Strike a balance

Talking to your children about experiences of success is an essential component of parenting, and one that can provide children with important insights about effort, persistence, and payoff. When evaluating performance with your children, talk about both external and internal metrics, as both external and internal measures of success are critical to helping children understand their own attainment of success. Ask questions not only about how their performance was evaluated or rated, but also about their experience of the activity, how they felt while completing it, whether they would make any changes to their approach or to the activity itself, and whether they would want to do it again. These questions will help children understand that, in addition to external evaluations, they can greatly contribute to their own understanding of success and of who they are as people by reflecting on both their approach and on their satisfaction and fulfillment with the activity.

A child may work hard, enjoy an activity, put forth their best effort, and still earn a mediocre grade. In other circumstances, that child may receive praise and a high grade for their performance on a task that they did not find enjoyable or fulfilling. In both cases, there are complexities to be discussed in terms of what success means and the ways in which it was achieved - a fulfilling experience, a persistent and effortful approach, a positive attitude, content mastery, a high grade - and what a constructive path forward might look like. Of course, there are inevitably times when we are forced to complete activities that we may not find enjoyable or that may not earn us high scores, and it is not possible or recommended to wholly avoid such tasks, but they can be valuable opportunities to learn about determination, persistence, and diligence.

However, in supporting your children to develop awareness of strengths and efficacy, try to have an open conversation with them about what it means to be successful and how their success can be identified, evaluated, and experienced not only by others, but also by themselves. Many of us live our happiest and most fulfilling lives when we find overlap between activities that bring us both internal and external experiences of success, and we seek to maximize the integration of those activities into our lives. Balanced discussions about success can help children better understand their strengths, values, efforts, and sources of fulfillment and satisfaction, all of which play a key role in a job well done and a life well lived.

Soraya Lakhani is a registered psychologist, and the Clinical Director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology (yellowkite.ca) located in Calgary. Soraya is a thought leader on parenting and child psychology, and her work has frequently appeared on CBC, Global, and other major media outlets. 


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