Lifting the burden of “Potential”

But then the worries start, because potential, after all, is a possibility, not a guarantee. What if your child doesn’t live up to that potential?

Because of advertisers’ messages, we’ve become afraid to do anything less than everything possible to develop our children’s potential. To ensure that we are developing such potential, we look to external indicators like grades to gauge our performance as parents.

We live in a narcissistic age that emphasizes being impressive and seeking admiration. Sadly, smart kids are often the ones who are hurt most by this focus on externals. Because they can perform, and that performance seems so important to everyone around them, they may start to believe that they are the performance.

It’s very easy for thoughts about potential to slip from “possibility” to “expectation.” Conscientious efforts to support and encourage our children’s achievement can drift into anxious concerns about what they could accomplish, if only they apply themselves diligently enough and take the right classes and get the right opportunities and score high enough…

Potential becomes a burden when we see it as a predestined calling to impressive accomplishments. Both parents and children can become seduced into focusing on performance rather than growth, on being The Best rather than making progress, and on accumulating external awards and accomplishments as the primary measure of worth. Worst of all, this one-dimensional perspective on potential creates a terrible fear of failure.

A narrow view of potential makes it seem like an all-or-nothing goal. In reality, life has many options and paths. It makes no sense to talk about kids “not living up to their potential” because the miracle of children is that we just don’t know how they will change or who they will become. The path of development is a journey of discovery that is clear only in retrospect, and it’s rarely a straight line.

Potential is not an endpoint; it’s a capacity to grow and learn. Nurturing children’s potential, in the broadest sense, means cultivating their humanity. It involves supporting their expanding abilities to reach out to others with kindness and empathy, to feel part of something bigger than themselves, to find joy and satisfaction in creating a life that is personally meaningful…and so much more. Help children to cultivate a broad self-definition that encompasses not only their abilities. It means helping children develop the foundation they need to discover their passions, build relationships, sustain effort, and create a life with authentic happiness (summary: compassion, perspective, grit).


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