“What’s Your Motivation?” Pursuing Excellence without Pride

My over-achieving, first-born, all-honors 6th-grader made a ‘B’ in math, and she didn’t like it. (Not bragging, just trying to give you a picture of the situation.) I was not upset. But then—and this is the funny part—she got angry with me for not being more bothered. After a few minutes of back-and-forth that included the classic “Did you do your best?” line on my side, she said, “I just wish you would push me harder to get good grades.”

In that moment, it would have been easy to spurt out a line from our self-centered culture or practice some of the blame-shifting that’s so common these days.

Instead, I sat back down in my chair and paused for a moment. Looking up at her (because, even then, she was quite tall), I voiced the dilemma that had been eroding its own little gully in my mind since she started Kindergarten: “I don’t know how.” How do I motivate my child…first-born or baby, Type-A or slacker…to do her absolute best, her most excellent work, without drawing upon her pride?

It’s been a couple of years since that scene played out in our kitchen, and I still don’t have a pat answer. Even if I did, every child is different, so my step-by-step solution might not work for your child. I do, however, have three Biblical principles that we discuss (randomly but frequently) to address this issue of motivation, especially as it relates to school. I believe they apply to every Christ-centered family.

One note first: As my children have matured (physically and spiritually), these principles have become easier for them to internalize, so if your children are early-elementary-age, you may need to simplify…and be patient. Don’t fall back into the rutted route of pride-based motivation!

Like a good singing voice or basketball talent, intelligence is a gift from God.

It may not be politically correct to say it, but some people are just smarter than others (speaking in the generic sense of ‘smart.’ See this post for what I really think of the term, ‘smart.’) God gives gifts for His glory and humanity’s good. If we waste our talents, we disrespect God and loose our chance to help the world.

His Glory: Remember the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)?* God expects a return on His investment. The talent He gives us should, in turn, bring Him glory.

Humanity’s good: Speaking of gifts within the church, Paul said they were given so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4:12), not for our own glory. It’s not too far of a reach, especially in light of Scripture as a whole, to expect all of our gifts/talents to be used for the good of others rather than for our own benefit.

In this way, my child must put her gift to work not for her own good but for the good of the world and the Kingdom of God.

God is glorified by our excellence.

grades close-up
(c) Carole Sparks

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). You need to be careful on this one because some of those high-achievers think actual perfection is a reasonable goal for their educational careers. Romans 3:23 will bring them down a notch, if necessary! God’s standards, however, far exceed any goals we might set for ourselves. At the same time, we cannot fully achieve those standards this side of Heaven. For the time being, let’s leave the perfection to Jesus even as we pattern our lives after His. This means we’re called to perfection and simultaneously called to accept that we can’t get there. Otherwise, show your children that ‘perfect’ sometimes means ‘complete’ or ‘finished’ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:9, James 2:22 in various versions).

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Genesis 1:31). When God created the world, He daily declared His creation to be good. He didn’t create anything half-heartedly or without paying attention to what He was doing. When He was finished, He sat back, took a look at what He had created, and said, “I did this well.” We call it the satisfaction of a job well done. Let your children see you satisfied with your work—if it’s a clean kitchen, a beautiful building, or a computer program. Encourage them when they complete something, and let them know it’s okay to enjoy that completion. Maybe it’s just my own Type-A personality, but a page of math homework with no mistakes is a beautiful thing. Our children can come to see it that way as well.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15; if you really want to use the word ‘study’ here, you’ll have to go back to KJV or the Geneva Bible.). I know Paul’s admonishment to Timothy has a context unlike your child’s or my child’s, but the principle of working to do your best and handle information properly applies to all of us. The application (or the prayer) for your child might go something like this: “Do your best to get the approval of God, your teachers, and your parents as a student who doesn’t need to be ashamed (due to anything lacking in your effort) and who correctly handles all the information he receives.” As I write this today, the Lord is convicting me to pray this verse over my children regularly!

Finally, just to keep everything in balance, remember that moral excellence is most important to God (Philippians 4:8).

We are called to do our best.

Excellence—especially in an educational setting—is going to look different on different people. For each person, we ask, “Have you done your best?” or “Have you given 100% to this task?” Paul told the Ephesian church (6:7-8), Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do…. I don’t know when my child has done her best, but she knows, and God knows. That is her ultimate accountability.

After I confessed that I didn’t know how to motivate her in a healthy, God-honoring way, my 6th-grader and I talked through some of these things. (I’m sure the conversation was far less organized than what I’ve written here.) I reassured her that making a ‘B’ in 6th grade was not going to diminish her chances of getting into a good college, that no one loved her any less because of it, and that I was sure she would bounce back to her usual ‘A’ in the next grading period. I’m choosing to hold grades loosely and formal education loosely and many other things loosely in favor of raising a child who clings to God tightly.

What about you? How do you motivate your children to do their best…in anything, not just school? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

*Endnote: Our English word, talent, comes from this parable in which a talent was a “unit of coinage” worth about 20 years of day wages. (NIV Study Bible textual note and study note for Matthew 25:15.) That’s a lot of money!


9 Good Things My Kids Learn in Public School

Decisions about a child’s education loom large in the mind of every thinking (a.k.a. intentional) parent. I’ve known many parents who lost sleep, wept tears, and passionately prayed about where and/or how to educate their children. While a child’s education path is a big decision, it’s not like you’re giving your child a tattoo. You can change educational formats whenever you need to.

In eight years of formally educating my children, we have experienced every format available except for boarding school: private school, Christian school, homeschool, and public school.  Sometimes the change was the result of a move or shift in circumstances, sometimes it was simply God-directed. Through these many experiences, God has taught me to release the idol of education and place it among my parenting goals, not at the top of my family’s priorities. If my child doesn’t learn to read this year, he will learn next year, and that’s okay. By the time he gets to middle school, it won’t matter. And I’ve never heard anyone say, “If only I had gotten into AP Calculus in high school, my whole life would have turned out differently!” Let’s face it:

  • There is no One Best Way to educate children.
  • That a child learns is far more important than when she learns.
  • Every school environment teaches more than what is gleaned from books.
  • Aside from the fundamentals (reading, writing, basic math), learning how to learn is often more important than what one learns.

In 2014, God very clearly and specifically led us to place our children in public school—one in middle school and one in elementary. Sure, some days are more difficult than they would be if we homeschooled or if they were surrounded by children who shared their Christian worldview. The benefits, however, have been exceptional. While we might see some portion of these benefits in other educational contexts, public school has provided them all…with little added effort on my part. Consider these nine things my kids are learning in public school.

  1. How to interact with different social, economic, ethnic, and religious groups. They constantly rub shoulders with poverty and wealth, agnostics and fundamentalists, recent immigrants and DAR descendants. They are learning to live harmoniously in our multi-ethnic American culture.
  2. How to wait. When they finish their work before others, they must wait quietly. Patience: what a real-life skill to have under their belts!
  3. How to help others through explanation. When they understand something, the teacher will occasionally ask them to help a student who is struggling. This exercises patience, compassion and generosity…not to mention verbal skills in re-explaining.
  4. How to speak up for themselves. In the classroom setting they learn to answer questions with confidence. They learn to express their needs (younger years) and their opinions (older years). Sometimes those opinions don’t correlate with others in the class, so they learn how to defend their position with poise and respect.
  5. How to win and lose graciously. Sometimes their team wins, sometimes it loses. They must “be okay” with either. Sometimes they answer an oral question incorrectly, and they learn to manage the embarrassment. Sometimes they score 100% on every spelling test, and they learn to manage that success without hurting their friends’ feelings.
  6. How to apply Biblical wisdom without adult guidance. In social situations at school, their obedience and faith are tested. The school context provides a safe environment where they can fail without huge consequences—great practice for college and adult life.
  7. How to speak respectfully about their faith. Again, they can succeed and fail in small steps so they gradually learn what Peter meant in 1 Peter 3:15b-16a, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.
  8. How to learn things they don’t really want to learn in ways that aren’t their preferred learning style. Not everything in school is interesting. Not every activity fits my child’s best learning style. He has to learn it anyway, so he learns how to learn even when he isn’t motivated. This is an essential life skill.
  9. How to summarize their experiences and reflect on their days. When the children come home from school, we talk about the good and bad things that happened that day. I don’t need a moment-by-moment account. I need a summary that includes highlights, emotions, and an evaluation of experiences. They are learning to glean wisdom from their own lives.

Every child is unique and every family is different. In the spring, we begin to pray about where/how to educate our children in the next school year. As you pray and plan for the coming year (It’s not too early!), don’t ignore the public school option. It might just be God’s will for your child and family. Then, whatever method of education to which God calls you, embrace it! I support you.

9 Good Things My Kids Learn in Public School: an #IntentionalParenting reflection on God’s intentions for my kids via @Carole_Sparks. #education (click to tweet)

How do/did you make education decision for your child/children? Every family is different–and every child within that family. Let us know in the comments below.


How Are You Smart?

My friend, Dr. Chester Goad, writes and speaks on “leadership, learning, and life.” A couple of months ago, I reposted an article of his, which you can see *here*. Then last week, he gave me the privilege of writing a guest piece for his website.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul wrote about the different gifts in the church, emphasizing the fact that all are not just necessary, but equal in some ways. The same concept applies to classrooms, boardrooms, and living rooms. When we recognize different natural talents or “kinds of smart,” it helps us value individuals who are different from ourselves so that we can move toward working together.

Anyway, it starts like this…

Before my children knew the real “s-word”, we had another s-word at our house: stupid. We simply didn’t use it. One may be ignorant about a certain subject—nothing wrong with that. One may do foolish things when one isn’t thinking, but stupid? There is no redemptive reason to use that word. Instead, we focused on the different kinds of smart. Although there are more specific words, smart fit my children’s level of understanding at the time…and it stuck.

Every human being has natural talents that, with training, become high-functioning skill sets. When you base your view of humanity on this assumption, you no longer have smart people and dumb people, bright people and dull people. You simply have people—lots of different people…

Head over to Chester’s website to see the rest!