Success Isn’t A Straight Line For Kids — We Need To Let Go Of That Notion, Especially Now

by Karen Johnson
Willie B. Thomas/Getty

When you have three distinctly unique kids, and you’re married to a person who took an entirely different career path than you did, there are a lot of definitions of “success” in your family. And many unique paths to get there (whatever and wherever “there” is).

For example, I have a nerdy math kid who dreams of going to MIT, even though he’s only 12 and the only thing he really knows about MIT is that “smart math kids go there.” Success to him means getting straight As, eventually becoming an engineer, and getting paid to play with math for the rest of his life.

I also have a hippy-at-heart animal lover who loves to write and draw and sew, and who saves all her money to help endangered cheetahs and sea turtles in faraway lands. Her definition of success really has nothing to do with financial stability, as she’d happily live in a tent in the jungle if she could save a lizard. If you ask her, she’ll say something dreamy like “success means being happy and surrounded by love.”

And then there’s my gorilla baby, who just turned eight and still hasn’t mastered sitting in a chair without hurting himself. His future aspirations fluctuate among being a professional hockey player, baseball player, and YouTuber (like lots of kids these days). Success to him means getting the best Fortnite skin or scoring five goals in his hockey game this weekend. At eight years old, it has nothing to do with college. Or really anything school-related, tbh.

Finally, my husband and me. I was a dedicated student, worked hard, and earned mostly straight As and an academic scholarship. But for career choices, I went into teaching and writing, so clearly money wasn’t my primary focus. I taught high school English for seven years, then jumped into SAHM-world, and eventually worked my way up to a fulfilling career as a writer which allowed me to still stay at home with my kids.

My husband, on the other hand, was sports, sports, sports growing up, and rarely brought a book home. Yet he went on to earn three degrees and is highly successful in a competitive, cut-throat field. His paycheck pays the mortgage, not mine.

But when I met him at 18, if you asked him about his future “career” aspirations, he’d tell you one thing: “I’m going to be a professional baseball player.” Because he believed with 100% of his heart, body, and soul that he would. When he got hurt and had career-ending surgery in his 20s, however, he then realized he had better pivot, and pivot fast. So off to grad school he went.

And as a mom to three entirely different human children who view writing, reading, math facts, and the scientific method on various points of the spectrum from “This is awesome!” to “Who TF cares?” I have learned that “success” can mean a million different things.

A realization that’s been proven true even more so by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Atlantic recently published an article about the term “success” and how parents, for decades, have identified this word with test scores, grades, scholarships, and prestigious colleges.

However, the article cuts straight to the point in its title: “Kids Don’t Need to Stay ‘On Track’ to Succeed” and follows this up with the subheading: “When parents portray success as a linear progression of SAT scores, acceptance to selective colleges, and high-powered internships, they set kids up for disappointment.”

Knowing how common it is for adults to pivot, to go back to school, to learn new fields, to fail at one endeavor and then succeed at another, why do we continue to stick to this old-fashioned straight line for kids?

Grades. Test scores. Scholarships. College. Internships. Graduation…

Are those six steps, in that order, feasible for all kids? Not even close. And then you throw an unexpected pandemic into the mix and this list becomes even more daunting. Instead, we need to remember that there’s a myriad of ways kids can find “success” in life. And oftentimes the path to get there is far from a straight line.

Because the truth is, the likelihood of my math-loving kid going to MIT in six years is small. Not because he’s not smart enough, but because he’s going to realize over the next 1/2 decade of his formative years that there are like 9,000 math-related careers out there, and almost as many phenomenal math programs at schools all over the country. And any of them can take him on path to “success.”

When we only allow one path, and we don’t let kids try new things or deviate from those six traditional key components—grades, test scores, scholarships, college, internships, graduation… and we put all our focus on them jumping from one step to the next without skipping any and without changing the order, there is no room for trying new things. There is no room for pivoting as kids realize they don’t, in fact, want to go into engineering, but instead want to be a teacher. And there definitely is no room for failure and learning from their mistakes.

Yet as adults, we must be able to cope with failure. We must be able to pick ourselves up after we’ve made a mistake (because we will) and we must be able to identify when something isn’t working and find a way to change course.

How will we know these essential life skills if we’re never allowed to “squiggle” or wiggle as we grow up?

Also, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we as a society need to actually redefine “success” and “failure.” A Washington Post article highlights a shift that’s occurred over the past couple generations with regards to the definition of success.

“We went from defining success as ‘a chicken in every pot’ to a heavy, guilt-inducing load of expectations: exclusive breast-feeding, infant flashcards, tutors starting as young as age 4, a full slate of AP classes, more SAT tutors, Ivy League school, prestigious professional six-figure career, and a McMansion with two living rooms,” the article explains.

And this is problematic and detrimental to our kids’ mental health and wellbeing because when we see our kids deviate off this path—a path that’s unachievable for many and also undesirable for many—we think they are “failing.” And then they think they are “failing.” When that’s far from the truth.

This year, more than ever, we have to rewrite the definition of success. As kids all over the world switched abruptly from in-person instruction to online school, as kindergarteners to college kids suddenly began receiving their education via a screen—some for a few weeks, some for months, some for the entire last year—we learned that there is no straight line anymore. There is no one way to succeed. And maybe that’s been the truth all along, but we’re just seeing it for the first time.

And lots of kids of all ages had to redefine their measures of success throughout this tumultuous experience. For example, my 12-year-old, a normally straight-A student, saw a few of his grades plummet. We don’t really know why, but we do know that it’s hard for most kids to stare at a screen for eight hours and learn the ins and outs of middle school for the first time via Google classroom and not a traditional classroom. We also know that it’s hard for his teachers to assess his understanding when they aren’t in the classroom with him. They cannot see his body language. They cannot teach when the internet cuts out. And they’ve had to revamp their lesson plans and teaching strategies, putting more work on their end. And on ours.

Success, for him, has changed definition. He’s learned to adapt his study habits to “virtual learning” in ways he didn’t have to before. He’s honed his skills in communicating via email, rather than walking up to the teacher’s desk. And he’s realizing, albeit reluctantly, that the value is in what he is learning, not his grades.

And for my eight-year-old? If he writes a sentence or two and does his math equations, we call it good. He reads in some capacity every day. Is it always the traditional 20 minutes of reading and math “homework” his older siblings were doing in 2nd grade when the world looked different? No. He might read independently, with me, on Facetime with a grandparent, or in small increments throughout the school day instead.

The path is not a straight line for any of us this year, and it might not ever be again—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And what a valuable lesson for our kids to learn now, as their future paths could likely be just as jagged.

For now, my kids know that they can attend school in person, or via computer. They can do math facts on a worksheet, or via Seesaw. They can sit in a desk at school, wearing a mask, or they can sit at the kitchen table. And in all of these scenarios, they can be “successful.”