Tomorrow, we start our ninth week of distance learning and the lessons for our entire family continue to present themselves each day. For us, like everyone else, the last spring’s “crisis learning “ weeks were incredibly hard. We were all feeling scared, anxious, unsure, and overwhelmed. Schools, teachers, and families were told one day in March we were going home and most of us haven’t returned to school since. Can you imagine how our children must feel?
After having the summer to re-calibrate to the best of our ability while still under quarantine with few safe options outside of our home, we spent a lot of time talking as a family about how to approach distance learning now that we knew what was coming. To be honest, I had to take a hard look at myself and what I was bringing to the situation - I’m a recovering perfectionist and I loved school and was an excellent student. I developed a mantra - I already did the 3rd grade, this is my daughter’s 3rd grade. I still use this every day to varying degrees of success.
Many parents have shared with me they enjoy being able to see what their children do in school all day and depending on the family and school - they have lots of feelings about it. It’s too much screen time, it’s not enough, there’s too much work, there’s not enough work, my child needs much more support at home than they need at school, etc etc. I share many of those feelings. I’ve spent a lot of time in my daughter’s classrooms over the years and distance learning is not what it looks like in the classroom.
For the last week, we have been really struggling to manage expectations and the ways that perfectionism rears it’s ugly and unhelpful head when it comes to school here. My daughter is definitely her parent’s child and has very high expectations of herself. Her teachers offer in the various daily assignments an option and then one or two challenges. For writing, they offer an assignment and let students choose between “surviving” or “thriving” - a more basic response or the above and beyond choice.
Guess what my daughter always chooses?
Yep. The challenges. The “thriving” paragraphs.
I was once given some incredible advice when it comes to “doing less” after I had shared about my outrageous expectations for myself. A wise woman told me, “Hey Lisa, when it comes to doing things the easier way or the harder way, take the easier way. There is no prize for doing things the hard way.” Don’t stay up all night baking cupcakes from scratch for the class party - buy them from the store. That’s just fine.
I share that advice with parents I work with in coaching all the time because people who tend to be drawn to peaceful parents are often very hard on themselves - in part due to the way they themselves were raised. It’s hard to “do less” without judging yourself. But now is the time to do less. There is no prize for pandemic parent of the year.
This past week as my daughter struggled with her challenges and thriving paragraphs, I reminded her of this life lesson. She said, very irritated with me, “There is a prize for doing it the harder way, Mama!” I reminded her there is no pandemic student of the year, that her brain isn’t working as well as it usually does, that we are all anxious, exhausted, and doing our best. She, like me and many of you reading this, is not someone I worry about not doing “enough.” But she insisted. She struggled and we had many tears all around in the beginning of the week. I was providing empathy, support, encouragement, and lots of laughter but I was missing something. There was something else pushing her to do more and I couldn’t figure it out.
On Wednesday night over dinner, we talked more about it. Everyone was calm and we had wrestled before sitting down to eat. It seemed like a good time to try to dig a little deeper. Elizabeth Gilbert once said to look at your life like you’re an anthropologist - study your surroundings and the people. Observe what’s happening. We chatted about choosing the harder way. Her father and I explained that right now, during distance learning, it is absolutely okay and wise to just stick to the assignments and not push herself given the stress it’s causing. I shared about the conversation I had with her teacher and her principal who both affirmed my daughter’s “surviving” work was more than enough. We talked about how some days you can take the challenges provided you slept well and aren’t feeling too worried about the state of the world.
Please don’t get me wrong, one of the basic tenets of peaceful parenting is that we have high expectations and provide their children with high support to meet those expectations. Under normal circumstances, that’s absolutely true. But we are not in normal circumstances. Distance learning is a far cry from classroom learning and we all, parents and children alike, need to offer so much grace. Right now, we need to accept where we are. Don’t let perfect or best be the enemy of the good or done.
Then, all of the sudden, my daughter shared what was underneath everything. That piece I was looking for all week.
“I feel worried if I don’t do all of the challenges and the best work I could ever do that my classmates will look at my work and say, “Well she didn’t do enough.”
Cue parent heartbreak. How can an 8 year old be so hard on herself? Also, man, can I relate. Combating those worries is a daily struggle for so many of us.
I reminded her the only person who would see her work was her teacher. She was under the impression, because she’s 8, that her classmates could see and evaluate her work. But that wasn’t enough. The lesson I wanted to share was much bigger than that.
“Please get me a piece of scratch paper, a pair of scissors, a ruler, and a pen,” I asked.
Both my husband and my daughter looked at me curiously. “Why? What are you doing?”
I cut three squares of paper - 1 inch by 1 inch - and handed them out. Borrowing Brené Brown’s suggestion to decide whose opinion counts in your life and that the number of people should be limited to this little piece of paper, we all wrote down the names of the people in our inner circle.
At the top of the list is you. You decide what your best is for that day. Then you can check in and trust those people on your 1 inch by 1 inch piece of paper.
My daughter decided the next day to just do the school work offered minus the challenges except if she wanted to and enjoyed doing it. Not because she wanted to impress anyone else or “prove” she was the best student in the class. We had a great rest of the week.
She teaches me every single day.