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Fear of success

It can happen around age 12.

Your daughter suddenly quits the team. Refuses to enter the music contest. Starts getting Bs when she’s always been an A student.

It isn’t laziness. It isn’t fear of failure. It’s fear of success.

Near the onset of puberty, your little girl who once out-ran all the girls and out-mathed all the boys wakes up one day and says, “I can’t,” when you know—and she knows—she absolutely can. Why?

Because sometimes success brings negative social repercussions, especially for adolescent girls. Insecure boys don’t like to be outdone, so they reject her for the girls who make them feel stronger and smarter. Competitive girls resent her achievements, so they kick her down the social ladder. In a hundred ways, her peers punish her for outpacing them, no matter how humbly she does so.

What’s a parent to do?

It might be tempting to sit that girl down and remind her, “To whom much is given, much is required.” That God demands she use her talents, not bury them.

Let’s not. Let’s not use the law in this way. Even if such tactics succeed and your daughter starts using her gifts faithfully again, she’ll be doing it out of guilt. She may even begin to resent the God whose love, it seems, comes with strings.

Instead, build her up.

  1. Tell your daughter you’re proud of her when she works hard, whether her efforts are successful or not.
  2. Be generous and specific with praise.
  3. Stop saying, “You can do anything, honey.” She knows it isn’t true, and it only makes her wonder whether your other praise is empty too.
  4. Make your home a safe place, where your daughter can say, “It felt so cool to win!” It’s honest, and having permission to say it at home may eliminate that feeling to seek praise in public, which really will hurt her social standing—and rightly so.
  5. When you see jealousy or pettiness in any of your kids, put your foot down. The family is a support network, not a rugby scrum.
  6. When you see jealousy or pettiness in your daughter’s friends, help her recognize it for what it is and try to understand the pain and insecurity that causes it.
  7. Foster humility by helping your daughter recognize that every person is gifted, whether those gifts win plaques at award banquets or not. And some of those gifts—humor, empathy, work ethic—will count far more in adulthood than fine free throw shooting. Your daughter may be gifted, but so is everyone else.

One of Satan’s favorite tools is to shut down Christians’ talents. He’ll tempt our daughters to make themselves smaller than they are, to sabotage themselves, to feel guilty when they faithfully use the gifts God gave.

Let’s not let that Liar win. Let’s help our daughters humbly and faithfully say, “I can do this. For my Savior I can do this.”

“I cah-h-h-n’t!”

“I cahn’t! I-I-I cah-h-hn’t!” The lament of my three-year-old grandson as he fit together jigsaw puzzle pieces. Within two minutes the puzzle was complete and he was on to another puzzle. But the chant continued. “I cahn’t!” Cute.

Doubting one’s adequacy may be cute at three. It loses charm by grade school. So how do we best love our kids when they insist, “I can’t,” but we parents know they can? I have five guidelines as a conversation starter.

Show grace

Lead with love, not law.  Let your self-skeptical kids know they are loved.  Loved by you.  Even better, loved without measure by our God.  Try, “I’m sorry you don’t think you can do this.  I want you to know I love you more than anything else.  And Jesus loves you much more than that.”

Don’t only begin with an emphasis on God’s grace. Throughout your conversation circle back to your love.  A love that won’t diminish because of your child’s failures. A love that is driven by God’s love for you.   Make God’s grace tangible with your actions: a hug, a smile, a back rub.

Yes, laying down the law has a place. Refuse to start there.

Seek to understand

Ask, “Why do you think you can’t do this?” Your child is believing a lie. Expose the falsehood to the warmth of truth and the problem evaporates.

There are many reasons we might doubt our abilities. For example,

  • Others’ negative opinions.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Prior failures.
  • Peer pressure.

Share your positive evaluation

Gently offer your own view of the gifts and abilities God has given your child. Suggest evidence for your view. “I know you can do this. Remember how you swam across the pool and surprised us all?”

Talk about grace and giftedness

Go beyond offering your evaluation. Talk about grace’s evaluation. Grace insists your child is unimaginably precious to God. The Son of God coming to be our Savior proves that. But in addition, God’s grace means your child is spectacularly gifted as the exact person God wants on this planet today. Consider Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Offer appropriate assistance 

Consider providing appropriate help. You might say, “What if you and I do this together?” “I’ll show you; then you can do the rest.” “I’d be willing to get you started on this project.”

Different kids in different situations at different times in their lives need to be approached differently, of course. What advice would you add?

Be kind

It strikes me lately that we moms can be really hard on each other. We veteran moms can be the worst. My kids are almost grown up, and I know how easy it is to forget the infant and toddler years. I need to remind myself how excruciatingly long those days could be, how hard I tried to be the perfect mom, how guilty I felt when I failed, how tired I was, how overwhelmed, how bored.

Truth is, we veteran moms tend to romanticize and sanitize our memories so much that we forget all about our kids’ tantrums at Target and the Cheerios that lived under the sofa cushions for years. Years.

We need to ask God to help us be kinder. Which brings me to that famous saying: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

That woman whose kids are a little naughty? Her dad was far too quick with the paddle when she and her sisters were little, and she’s trying very hard to break the pattern. She may be more permissive than you’d be, but considering where she comes from, she’s doing great. So let’s be kind.

That woman with the detached look on her face while her toddlers are rubbing mud all over her yoga pants? God made her an introvert, and if she doesn’t get a few minutes of alone time soon, she’s going to implode. So let’s be kind.

That woman who’s always late? She’s low in Vitamin D and can hardly walk down the steps in the morning. She feels emotionally and physically tapped out before she even starts the day. So let’s be kind.

That woman who’s gained so much weight? She’s not lazy. She’s not overeating. Cortisol is coursing through her veins because of stress at work, her gut bacteria are all out of whack, and the doc put her on a new med for her fibromyalgia—all of which led to extra pounds. So let’s be kind.

That woman whose house is dirty? God put music in her, and every time she starts dusting, the dusting turns to dancing and melodies fill her head. She puts down the dust cloth, sits at the piano, and scribbles on staff paper. So, yeah her house isn’t the cleanest, but—know what?—when she sits at that piano, that’s the moment she’s doing what God gifted her to do. So let’s be kind.

We need to pivot.

What would happen if we reminded ourselves that just because we all have two X chromosomes doesn’t mean we have the same gifts?

We have different levels of cooking, cleaning, and organization skills—and frankly, some of us don’t care that much about the surfaces at all.

We have different levels of patience and empathy. Different ways of communicating love.

Some of us are naturals with babies, and some of us fumble around until the kids can clearly express their desire for peanut butter in English. Some of us love dealing with the drama of adolescence, and some of us enjoy kids best when they’re adults. Honestly, some of us are uncomfortable at almost every stage of the parenting process.

What if we just stopped analyzing and comparing? We’re all human, and that means the calluses on our feet are not always buffed off, our bathrooms are not always swished and swiped, our e-mails are not always read, and our hot dishes are not always hot.

We lose our tempers. We’re a little frayed at the edges. We cry when no one is looking.

And we’re also amazingly gifted by God—every single one of us—some as administrators, some as teachers, some as healers, some as creators, some as communicators.

God made us, and he declares us gifted, precious souls through his Son, Jesus. That same Son forgives our failures and, being human himself, completely understands our weaknesses. He loves us and accepts us as we are.

Maybe we can try harder to do the same for each other.

Changing our focus

I often feel like I don’t measure up. I’m not as fun as all the moms on Pinterest who make creative projects with their kids. I feel bad that I don’t have time in my schedule to volunteer for every field trip and to say “yes” whenever I am asked to help someone. I can be short tempered and respond negatively to my children. I fall short every single day. When I feel that I have fallen short, I need to be careful to identify my measuring tool.

I’m not as fun as all the moms on Pinterest who make creative projects with their kids.

Comparison. When I compare, I always come up wanting. If I think of fifty other women and list one talent from each of those women, the list is fifty talents long! What one mom could compare to the talents of fifty others and look good? Yet this is often the measuring tool that I use.

False measuring tools like this leave me feeling defeated. Each mom is a complex creation to whom God gave special talents and abilities. God made me and chose me to be just the right mom for my children.

I feel bad that I don’t have time in my schedule to volunteer for every field trip and to say “yes” whenever I am asked to help someone.

Unrealistic expectations. I often feel guilty that I cannot do everything and be everywhere. My children will even add to my guilt by saying things like, “Everyone else’s moms came.” Yet I am only one person who has 24 hours in each day. Measuring myself against unrealistic expectations—whether my own or those of others—only gives me false guilt and makes me second guess my choices. It is wise to prayerfully consider how my time can best be used and then to set limits. There may be things that I would enjoy doing or even that I am gifted at doing but that my family life does not allow time for. My first responsibility is to care for my family, and I honor God by doing so. Saying “no” sometimes is part of being a good steward of my time.

I can be short tempered and respond negatively to my children.

My own sinful behavior. Using God’s Word as my guide, it is clear that I do not measure up. My shortcomings aren’t a result of a bad self-esteem. They are real. I don’t meet God’s mark. Thankfully that doesn’t matter anymore. My Jesus does meet the mark. He lived a perfect life, died, and rose. Through faith, his perfection is mine.

When I want to shed my feelings of not measuring up, to stop comparing, and to throw out unrealistic expectations, I know exactly where to look—God’s Word. God changes hearts. He can help us be the moms that he wants us to be. He can help us to be moms who let go of our mistakes and bask in his forgiveness. God is the one in whom we boast.

Although time isn’t something that we have an abundance of, time with God is time well spent. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” When we make time and spend it quietly with God, our focus changes. We stop seeing our own weakness and focus on Christ’s perfection. This changes everything. When God is first, our attitude about our family life will change. Pinterest, our own expectations, and the expectations of others will matter less—and the opinion of God will matter more.