(Part 1) On Success and Expectations

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

"I want my daughter to be a successful musician."

I daresay that if I had the benefit of foresight of where the Suzuki programme would bring us when I first penned my reasons for starting my 3.5 year old on cello lessons back in 2014, I would most certainly have said this.

Success. A word so bold that it's awkward to say out loud that you want your child to be successful, for fear of sounding like a overly-demanding Tiger Mum / Dad. Yet, at the very basic level, we recognise that it is a parent's duty to set our child up for success. We don't send our child into life to fail. We provide balanced meals to help them achieve good nutrition. We doggedly nag them on personal health and hygiene to help them achieve good health. We experiment with schools and activities to find the best environments that help them learn effectively.

Simply put, helping our child be successful is to continuously help them to grow into better versions of themselves. Sounds exhausting? You bet. Which is why we also recognise that we can't be by our child's side to groom him into success every step of the way. Rather, we give him the space, the opportunity and the tools to figure out how to create success for himself.

Conditions for Success

This is where the secret to the Success Sauce is:

"Create conditions that make success inevitable." - Benjamin Hardy

This is easy to do with young children. If you want your toddler to build the habit of brushing her teeth nightly before bed, you might try "Would you like to brush your teeth together with mummy or with daddy tonight?" If your clever framing of the question succeeds in getting your child to choose either option, 'ding!' - everybody wins. Everyone feels accomplished.

With older children, easy conditions alone may not provide the feeling of accomplishment in getting something done. They know when a task is deliberately made so easy that 'winning' is inevitable. When my daughter's teacher gave out cute erasers to every pupil in the class, she was more pleased to be in the best-performing group who got first dibs in choosing from the selection of erasers, than she was over the eraser itself. The true reward was the feeling of accomplishment. The eraser was soon tossed into her stationery hodgepodge. But the feeling and memory of the accomplishment remain.

Holding High Expectations

This is where, in order to let our children experience success, we need to hold them to high challenges. Not just because we want to believe - and want them to believe - that they can do hard things. But because we respect them enough to challenge them. It might be akin to how you respect your body enough to challenge it with a hard workout.

Is it reasonable to hold high expectations of young children? How do we know what are reasonably-high expectations to have? My daughter was recently asked by her swim instructor to do 20 sit-ups daily to build muscles on her slight frame. This is a huge task for a child who does not enjoy exercising. How should I frame our expectations around this challenge for her? Do I tell her:

(A) "Come on! You can do it! I believe in you!"

(B) "Just try. It's okay if you can't do it. What is important is that you try."

(C) "Let's do 10 for a start. Then aim to do 5 more."

I would go for (C). With (A) and (B), I would feel that I am setting her up for failure. Yes, there are lessons to be learnt from failure. But we don't send our child in to fail. There is an oft-quoted experiment in psychology books about how students rise to the level of their teacher's expectations. We want them to taste the success - that comes from right-sizing the challenge to be on the edge of their ability. I know that 10 sit-ups is within her ability. Aiming for 5 more is on the edge of her ability. If she can do that, aiming to do another 5 more is again on the edge of her ability.

Right-Sizing the Challenge: on the edge of ability

How do we know how to right-size a challenge to make it satisfyingly hard? We take cues from our child on whether she is able to have a sense of control over being able to meet the expectations set for her. Last year, we decided to take a pause from the school string ensemble. Having my daughter join the ensemble at the end of Primary 2 had turned to be a giant leap for her in terms of technical and emotional maturity, and we were feeling the immense pressure of having to meet the high expectations set by the performance coach. The pause gives us time to develop technically and emotionally, and rather than feel that we had failed, we instead found a sense of accomplishment in playing and leading in smaller ensembles within our music schools. This made for a really good lesson in right-sizing the challenge and the level of involvement and leadership to be on the edge of the child's ability.

To be continued. How can we have a healthy relationship with success? Stay tuned for Part 2 on recognising, comparing and encouraging success.

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