I’ve been a high achiever all my life; a lot of things are relatively easy for me. Of course, though I am highly ungifted in a number of areas (physical coordination, all things math, social coolness, skinniness, and potty training children are among those neatly listed under “epic fail”)—there are areas in which I excel.
And then? God gave me a son with learning disorders, including ADHD.
It was like those seed packets I pick up at the beginning of spring, images of flowers nearly blooming off the packet. I forget those flowers were grown by professional gardeners, snapped by professional photographers, and perhaps photoshopped.
But here in Real-Life Land, a few hailstorms, some overly harsh sun, a dog lifting his leg on my scrawny seedlings, and soon I’m realizing the flourishing image on the packet may not be in my future. Survival is the new goal.
With my son, I didn’t anticipate the playdate meltdowns. The dismal spelling tests. The embarrassing social skills. The tears over handwriting. For awhile there, excellence wasn’t really the goal. We were going for “not a future felon or 52-year-old living in his parents’ basement.”
“In trying harder is your salvation”
I’ve watched my son give his all at academics. Music. Sports. And I’m here to tell you effort isn’t everything.
As a nation, of course, we love achievers. They’re people who affirm our culture.
We are the land of opportunity: the place where, if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can reputedly live the American dream. Even children, with an abundance of resources, can now be spectacular, be it on YouTube or as a National Merit Scholar.
With belief and a little elbow grease, we are told, effort is the only thing stopping you.
But now, I have heard of one town where police officers camp out near railroad tracks. More than one teenager or even preteen, wearied and frantic by the pressure to achieve, has decided this kind of life isn’t worth it.
Somewhere along the way, our desire to help our kids blossom into the best version of who they were made to be has turned from desire to demand, to a frenetic forcing of bloom and height and color.
When achievement and Christianity have a baby
As Christian parents, of course, we want our kids to succeed. (“I hope my kid really bites it in life,” said no parent ever.)
Applying Scripture to it, we want our kids to maximize their gifts for God’s glory and to serve His people (1 Peter 4:10-11).
We want them to do the good works God’s prepared in advance for them to do (Ephesians 2:10).
We want them to, as one of my kids’ stickers reads, further their education so they can further the kingdom of God.
And by the way, kids, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). See? There’s a biblical precedent for excellence.
What would Jesus achieve?
In college, I remember my then-fiance asking me if Jesus would ever get a “B” on his report card. I said no. Jesus would do things with his whole heart, as for God.
But what, then-fiance asked, if Jesus stayed up late the night before a test helping a friend or simply praying? What if, to help His mom or to address all of the other good things God had asked him to do in life … He didn’t get the top grade?
I narrowed my eyes. This seemed highly suspect.
Yet, isn’t it true? Grades or awards set benchmarks for excellence. But surely as believers we can think of excellence and even stewardship more broadly and widely than who we are on paper.
Twenty years later, now a more broken and humble mother, I think, what if God had made Jesus a solid B student? What if Jesus worked His tail off and got straight C’s?
What I am slowly learning from his learning disorders
My son has labored so hard to achieve. And in his uphill journey, my understanding of our worth as humans has catapulted me to a new plane.
My value and my son’s aren’t touched by our abilities or performance. Neither of us need to enter a courtroom every day to, yet again, evaluate our worth. The verdict has been earned and delivered by Jesus. Our value lies in His performance on our behalf and God’s creation of us in His image. End of story.
Our cravings are subtle, folks. My son’s struggle to succeed has revealed in me that what I thought was excellence was sometimes confused with significance.
What I thought was perfectionism, or even holiness, was a fear of my own failure and weakness and being wrong.
Instead of performing from the abundance of His unconditional love—because I was accepted—I still feverishly performed, clawing to be accepted.
I was fear- and self-driven in my achievement, in God’s name (and doesn’t that sound like a group of people Jesus took issue with in the New Testament? Ahem, Pharisees.).
I’ve learned there are holes in my definition of success. It’s not found in our own or our kids’ careers, their GPA, the label on their jeans, the number of zeros in their income, their sports prowess, or even their social skills.
Success in my parenting is whether my children become men and women after God’s own heart. It has nothing—zip, zilch—to do with SAT scores or the ability to maneuver a ball into an end zone.
In my son’s occasional failures, I have learned to sit with him, rather than distracting him with his other achievements. I am wary of the message, “You’re still smart/accomplished/etc./etc. And that’s why I love you.” (Even though it’s profoundly true: Even “mediocre” children are anything but. God speaks lavishly of every single part of the Body of Christ [1 Corinthians 12]. My son overflows with talent and intelligence, even though it’s not always in ways my culture values.)
But when I insist my son in any failure shouldn’t worry, he’s still gifted, there’s a subtle translation: As long as you are those things, you’ve got a friend in me. And I’m willing to look the other way as long as you are primarily those things.
That, friends, is not the message we’re going for.
(Though it may be hard. Can we separate our kids’ failure from who we are?)
The words our kids are dying to hear
Our kids are dying to hear from us what they aren’t hearing hardly anywhere else: I accept you. Not because you’re generally great. Because you’re mine, and because God’s image in you is breathtaking.
My love, and your value in the eyes of God (the only eyes who truly matter!) are unconditional.
A young friend of mine has Down syndrome. I have thought about her gifting, her potential place in the body of Christ. (I have mulled over the fact that in my country, 67-85% of babies with this are aborted.)
But there is something peculiar about her: I think she is happier than me. In fact, she seems to live off pure, distilled joy. Her role in life, her contribution to society, seems to be primarily to make people happy not by proving, but simply by being.
The ostensible “drag” created on society by disability seems to me a beautiful one. Our elderly, our infirm, our less-than, our distinctly ordinary—they remind us: Life is about more than achievement and contribution and forward movement.
Celebrate with me the fact that we are all more than what we do.
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.