Redefining Perfection: 4 Ways You Can Help Your Teen Succeed in High School

This is the first installment of Plan. Succeed. High School Edition, a course to help teens have the organizational skills, sense of purpose, and focus necessary for success in high school. 

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Recently, I was wrapping up our bedtime routine with my five year old son. Crawling into bed for story time, I began reading his new book, Perfect Square. This book is about a square piece of paper who is content with life. He’s square. He’s red. He’s perfect. He’s happy. But then one day, someone comes along and cuts and pokes holes in the square, and it is not so perfect anymore. So the paper uses the scraps and dots to make itself into a fountain. Over a few days, this piece of paper is folded, colored, wrinkled and used every which way, and each time, the paper chooses to make something from the experience. At the end of the book, no one is there to poke or prod, and whereas the central character was once proud and perfectly happy being an unused piece of paper, he now felt ordinary. So he did a little snipping of his own and made himself into a window that looked out on all of the things he’d made himself into: a fountain, a forest, and a host of other things. It was then that the paper felt truly perfect.

This picture book that I'd gotten from the library for my not-yet-kindergartner was not about a piece of paper. It was about going through rough experiences and coming out of them a more confident, risk-taking, self-aware person. When we send our kids to high school, we expect them to learn math, science, English and history, but we sometimes forget that they should also be developing their character, resilience and fortitude as well. And how do we build character and find out who you are and what you’re made of? You have take risks. You try new things. You explore beyond your comfort zone. You fail, reflect, and you grow from each not-so-perfect experience. 

In high school, some kids learn for the first time that things are hard. They’re poked by teachers who push them to their limits; they’re cut by coaches, and some of their friendships fold. It is our job as parents to prepare them to handle all of that. If we don't, we’ll unintentionally prepare our kids for endless frustration that come from trying to hold on to the self-defeating, unrealistic belief that perfection requires them to be wrinkle and experience free. See, in the book, perfection doesn’t mean perfect. Perfection means constantly learning. It means being poked, cut, stretched and torn, and taking a new perspective on the difficult moments so something “perfect" can come out of the process. Perfection is making something useful out of one’s imperfect experiences. It’s messy. It’s hard. It’s one of the best skills we can develop on the path to a successful life.

So much of this growth happens in high school.

So what can parents do to help their rising high schoolers not succumb to the pressure to be ordinarily perfect?

  1. Encourage exploration: As early as 6th or 7th grade, make it clear that you expect your son or daughter to find and try something new every summer. It can be a new camp. They can teach themselves a new skill. For kids who are always asking for bling, encourage them to create and launch a business. They just have to take initiative and try something different. Just like in Perfect Square, new experiences give our kids an opportunity to learn more about who they are, how to pursue something they are interested in, and how to fight through the challenge of navigating their way through unfamiliar territory. The self-awareness and willingness to commit to a cause that develop from this simple expectation will serve your kids well throughout college and over the course of their lives.
  2. Be your child’s coach (or hire one): High school is full of imperfect experiences for kids to step back on and ask the essential questions: What am I learning about myself from this frustration? Not the emotional reaction, but what am I learning about my strengths, weaknesses, habits, and interests from this? What other perspective can I take to better understand this situation? How can I make something meaningful from this imperfect experience?  Our kids don’t ask those questions. They are fresh-out-of-diapers, new-to-life teenagers. How would they know? As their coach, this should become your standard response to any hiccup. By the end of freshman year, they should be able to have that conversation without your prompting. And if this isn’t in your capacity to do as a parent for whatever reason, hire a coach for your kid. Small schools with the dean system do this for kids, but in larger schools that follow a counselor model simply don’t have the manpower or structure to meet the needs of all the students. The investment in self-development at this stage is worth it.

  3. Don’t buy in to the hype: There’s so much panic and misinformation about what you kids have to do to get into the best college or have the best chances at success. If you buy into that narrative, you fuel your child’s belief that there is only one path to success, and it's a tightrope strung 10 feet above a lion’s den. That is simply not true. There are small liberal arts schools, large state schools, specialty schools for a reason: because no one school type fits every student! Kids follow our lead. If you don’t buy into idea that there’s one path to success, your kids won’t buy in either.

  4. Don’t freak out when your kids fail: I know. I know. It’s hard. They are our babies and we hate to see them hurting, but if we teach them how to fail and how to get up they’ll be so much stronger for it.  When the rough patches come, resist the urge to lash out at or discredit the enemy (teachers, coaches, or friends). Doing so shifts the focus and responsibility away from your kid.  Instead, remember to ask the essential questions above. If you need additional guidance, call or email the dean or coach for clarity.

Our kids need authentic opportunities to see themselves as capable, constructive, resilient people. Without those opportunities, they become risk-averse, paralyzed by a lack of confidence.

Nelson Mandela once said, "I never lose. Either I win or learn.” Helping our kids cling fiercely to this nugget of wisdom rather than the misguided notion that any failure is terminal. Redefining perfection is one of the best things we can do to help our kids develop the confidence, sense of purpose and fight that’s needed for them to truly be successful.