Freeing My Children From The Pressure To Achieve

by Stacey Gagnon
Stacey Gagnon

For a long time, I struggled to give myself permission to fail. I was so worried about the opinions of others, and a part of me also was scared to walk against the tide and be considered a “problem.” And if I’m completely honest, conformity is comforting, and my oldest children were easily able to achieve and conform to the standards of childhood. They excelled at school and were compliant to whatever tasks and ideas that I threw their way.

Four adoptions later, I realized that if I continued on this path of achievement, I was actually hurting my children. I finally stepped into a place where I gave myself permission to say “no,” and in doing so, freed my children to be children. As the parent, I gave myself permission to decide what values and standards I placed on my children. I also decided that no grade, achievement test, or system of measurement could define them.

It started one evening when I was exhausted from cajoling, begging, and threatening my daughter to finish her homework. It was at that moment as she sat in tears that I realized this was my agenda. Did I believe that the homework was helping? As a former teacher and educator, did I agree with homework in the primary grades? No, I did not, but yet I was still pushing her to complete it.

I had an epiphany. Homework had become my grade, and as I looked into her tear-filled eyes, I saw her begging for permission to be a child. Dramatic as it sounds, I looked into her tear-streaked face and became determined to take back my children’s childhood, because this issue had bled into so many other areas of their lives. I walked into the school the next day and told the teacher we would be failing the homework portion of their grade. Then I went home and slowly started evaluating my choices and asking myself some tough questions about my children’s childhood. I’ve placed these questions in a letter that I think children in our generation would like to share.

Dear Parent,

Can I play?

Can I run and skip and leap? Watch me take risks — and stop yourself from calling out “That’s not safe; get down.” Look away as I climb the tree or balance on the fence post. I may fall and skin my knee, but the pain goes away in a few seconds, and I will try again. Let me learn now that we all fall down, and we make adjustments and do it again. I want to learn how to fall so that one day when I am a woman, I will be able to fail and it won’t destroy me. I will learn that failure is part of life and it is how you respond to failure that shows strength.

Stacey Gagnon

Tree climbing

Can I go outside?

Do you see me notice the veins on the leaves, and collect only the yellow flowers because those are my favorite? I love to watch the clouds and find shapes and patterns I know. Do you see me examine the wings of a butterfly and intricacy of a spider’s web? I am learning that nature is by design and that there is someone greater than me that created it. I need to build foundation and concrete learning before I jump to the abstract. Let me get covered in mud; I easily wash off. I will one day become a man who will respect the beauty of nature and all it has to offer. I will learn that the world is bigger than me, and there is much to explore. I will learn that bugs and lizards die, and so do we. If you let me, I will think about the bigger picture, but first I must experience the basics.

Stacey Gagnon


Can I imagine?

Watch me set my dolls up and play house. I am learning to organize and decision make. Watch me take a leadership role as I negotiate with my brother on where the truck should be parked outside the dollhouse. I am learning problem-solving as I organize my toys and argue with my siblings. Let me build the fort in the living room and fill it with picture books to look at. When I play and pretend, I am learning. Worksheets and homework will never take me to far away places, but my imagination will.

Stacey Gagnon

Living Room Fort Gagnon

Can I rest?

I’m tired and I want to rest. Watch me let my mind wander as I draw on a page and shut out the noise. Teach me not to fear silence, so that I will be comfortable and happy with my own thoughts. Show me balance, and allow for days without a practice, a game, or an event planned. Organized sports are good, but please don’t get upset when I chase the butterfly while playing right field. Teach me quiet as we turn off electronics and listen to the wind in the trees and rain on the roof. Allow me to be bored because that is when I am forced to tap into my imagination.

Can I be a child?

I don’t have many years to be a kid. Let me be silly and dress up and play with toys that don’t have batteries and make noise. Can I pick out my own clothes and wear an outfit that is just not sensible? Let me carry a stick for a sword and wear rain boots and a princess dress to the store. I have plenty of time to learn society’s expectations, I don’t need to live them now.

Stacey Gagnon

Silas incognito and prepared for a trip to the grocery store

Can I make a mistake?

Let me try things you know will never work. Watch me create a boat for the lake and put it together with wood glue. As it falls apart at the lake, teach me about other ways to build. And watch me respond in a positive way to failure because you’ve already taught me it’s okay to fail. Let me make mistakes and learn to laugh at them, so that I won’t become an adult who is defined by my mistakes.

Stacey Gagnon

Joel and his wood glue boat

Can you be my voice?

You are my voice. I trust you to speak up for me when my voice won’t be heard. Can you step in and say “stop” when the load’s too heavy? Can you speak up and say “go” when my mind is discouraged and wants to quit? Can you whisper “slow and steady” when those around me are laughing at my attempts? When I grow into an adult, it will be your voice I hear in my mind. It will be your voice that tells me “Go! I believe in you,” “Stop! You must use your mind and try a different way,” and “Slow and steady!” when I don’t know how I can go on another day.

Can you love me…for me?

Teach me these things called love and empathy and sacrifice; they carry a greater value than academics. When I am a man and I have been loved in spite of my failings as a boy, I will be mighty indeed. When I have stood by and silently watched you lift up the weak ones and carry those who cannot walk, I will learn love. My shoulders will be broad and you will have taught me that a strong man does not stand up for himself, he stands up for others. And his strength can be measured by how gently he loves the weak.

Stacey Gagnon

Israel leaving the orphanage in his daddy’s arms