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Q: I have a family group that generally crushes my children with the idea that unless they achieve straight A's, they're not "smart." As I was a straight A student until 9th grade, and then evolved into a detached student who hustled out of high school a year early (I was bored and took extra classes to graduate in my junior year), I am comfortable with their pressure--it rolls off my back. I am more concerned that my fifth grade son is worried about what my family thinks of his grades. My sister, for example, was a child prodigy, and graduated with a law degree after finishing her undergrad and masters levels in four years (total). While my son loves his brilliant aunt, she's filling his head with sorry ideas about his overall worth as a human being if he gets a "B" in Language Arts. I know my son. He HATES to write. He's a budding scientist and craves a complicated math problem, and does get A's in every subject -- except Language Arts. My sister has thus begun a campaign to convince him that he's not "living up to his potential." I've grown quite fed up with her monthly phone calls, where she asks me over and over again to enroll him in advanced academic science camps to "make up for his lack of progress in English and writing."
I am not the type to cast aside family members because they irritate me. I do, however, appreciate suggestions on what I relay to my son about his wonderful school performance. I need to offset the beating he takes from relatives like my sister who honestly believe that one "B" on a report card is the same as "failing."
A: Your son's life, academic or otherwise, is about finding his own "voice", not about living up to your sister's or any one else's expectations. From your writing he seems academically to be a curious boy who enjoys a challenge. Up to this point he is managing to excel at whatever is assigned. As you know from your own past, it's very easy for a child to become bored with the teaching and curriculum of a school. You need to do all you can to continue to offer him encouragement, support, and genuine interest in his academic life (as well as all other parts of his life). Make sure your expectations of him are realistic and do not set him up for guilt and fear.
As for your sister or anyone else who will consider him failing unless he is tops in everything he does, calmly but firmly tell them that you do not wish your son to feel unduly pressured to live up to their academic standards for him. Explain that you want to see him continue to be a child who loves to learn, not a child who believes he is a disappointment to other family members unless he performs up to their expectations. Your son is old enough to be told that many people see accomplishment only in terms of what they believe is significant achievement. Tell him that you know it might bother him to hear his aunt always pushing him to do more and better. Don't try to make your sister look bad in the process but do tell your boy he can learn to let her comments roll off his back because, after all, "We know how Auntie is about these things don't we."
If you really feel that your sister's and other family members' negative comments are beginning to affect your son too much, I would suggest that they come with you to a family therapist so you all could work this out in an unbiased setting. You might also ask them to read Martin Seligman's "The Optimistic Child"; an unparalleled book in its examination of what creates and keeps a child optimistic, thriving, and resilient. You'd benefit from reading it as well. It has many practical suggestions about how to keep your son feeling good about himself and his life. Thanks for writing.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.