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U.S. President George W. Bush at Yale graduation

Jews, Academic Achievement and Perfectionism

"To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And to the C students, I say you too may one day be president of the United States." -- George W Bush

As I returned from a relative's law school graduation, I reflected on the emphasis that Judaism places on education and academic accomplishment. Back in biblical times, teaching children was paramount: Deuteronomy 6:7 commands parents to teach their children diligently. As Jews entered the Diaspora, survival required intellect; persecution precluded Jews from owning land and from engaging in most common occupations; therefore, Jews were forced into professions requiring scholarship - medicine, law, money lending, and the like. In the following centuries, superior scholarship became somewhat of a status symbol, and wealthy families of Europe chose scholars for their daughters. 

At the turn of the last century, Jewish immigrants to the United States and elsewhere carried on the tradition of education. Barely able to make a living, they continued their educations, fought the anti-Semitic stance of University admission committees and sent their children to university. Even until today, as compared with other ethnicities, Jews attend secondary education at much higher rates. 

I am a beneficiary of this strong academic tradition within Judaism. I credit much of my academic success to my upbringing in a Jewish family that valued education almost more than anything else. I am grateful for this motivating force and feel so fortunate for the options that my education afforded me, most importantly, my rewarding career. I can honestly say that I wake up almost every day happy to go to work, and I leave at the end of the day feeling content with a day spent in worthwhile and stimulating pursuits. Second only to motherhood, I see my academic career as my major life accomplishment to date, but there are costs to a focus on academic success. I learned lessons that I hope I can share with you and your children. Please understand as you read this that I continue to struggle with these issues.

My concern is when this emphasis on academic pursuits becomes becomes excessively high or misplaced pressure for children. As the joke goes:

One lady bumps into her friend who was babysitting her grandchildren. 
"Oh, what beautiful children," she comments. "How old are they?" 
"Well," she kvelled, "the lawyer is 6 months, and the doctor is 2 years."
Do not misunderstand me. I am in favor of high standards for children, but parents should see their role as guides: helping children set self-directed and realistic goals. At times, it is not the parents who push their children too hard, but rather, the children who push themselves not only to higher and higher levels but also to get there quickly. Throughout my training, for example, I hurried from one milestone to the next, worrying that life (and motherhood) would pass me by as I completed my training. No accomplishment was ever cause for me to stop and feel proud because there was the next goal looming in front of me.

As I grew older, I learned to take the time to cherish every milestone. As a new parent, I instinctively felt pride when I saw the joy in my children's faces after they took their first step. As my children age, so too have I learned to feel pride in the smaller accomplishments for which they feel proud and I have encouraged my children to feel pride in themselves. 

Lesson One: Cherish and give thanks for your child's milestones and find small and large accomplishments to celebrate, reflect, and give thanks. 

Another painful memory of my education involves the tremendous anxiety I felt before every exam - and I took hundreds of them (maybe thousands) in my lifetime. I know that I was not alone in believing that every test was almost as important as life or death. I believed (and so, too, did many of my classmates) that if I did not master every detail, I was a failure and I went on to inaccurately believe that any given poor test score was predictive of a lifetime of failure. How preposterous! 
Reflecting on the unhealthy pressure that I felt for most of my life, I promised to raise my children to strive for excellence rather than perfection. As a physician, I saw children, raised in an environment that expects perfectionism, who only focused on their negative attributes, lacking a more balanced and accurate perspective. Some of these children became anxious, depressed, or sometimes scared to try anything new for fear of failure. My husband and I work to raise our children in an environment that recognizes gradations of success and failure. We try to give them appropriate feedback about their performance by looking beyond the letter grade or score to what they learned and how hard they tried. This helps our children to feel comfortable with challenging themselves and getting help when they need it. I hope that they will develop an accurate view of their performance and a realistic plan for their future. 

Lesson Two: Don't teach your children to be perfectionists nor expect perfection in them. Rather, teach them to assess their performance accurately, and make sure to "catch your child doing something right."

The final lesson involves acceptance of the fact that no one can excel in all areas. This one takes most people several decades to realize. This pressure starts in grade school when children, setting their course for higher education, are expected to achieve A's in all classes. 

As the years progress, I have come to realize that are multiple avenues that I can do well, but I accept, and at times, embrace and laugh at my failings and weaknesses. Weakness in an area does not preclude me from pursuing it, but I know not to do it alone. I am fortunate to have lots of friends and colleagues who support me where I am weak. This sense of inter-dependence has made for strong research and clinical teams and wonderful relationships. I have learned about life from janitors, from parents without high school educations, from colleagues and from CEO's. I am so fortunate that I can interact, learn, and depend on so many people. My husband and I strive to help my children develop a balanced and accurate view of their strengths and weaknesses. We encourage them to try new things, even if they might fail, and to not be afraid to ask for help.

Lesson Three: Help your child embrace his strengths and accept his weaknesses. Explain that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and that, even if you will not be the best, you can have fun trying something new. 

As I leave you with these three life lessons, I wish sincere congratulations to you and your children for whatever milestone, no matter how great or small, they achieved in the past month. For many, this involved a graduation with all of the associated pomp and circumstance, but for others, smaller accomplishments went unnoticed. Stop, give thanks, and celebrate these smaller victories, too.

-- Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston

Previous Columns

Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com, Founder and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions for future columns.