Lessons from an A-Minus Childhood: “Do Your Best” or “Be the Best”?

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If Nancy M., my friend and occasional nemesis in elementary school, is reading this, I hope she is happy and successful.

No doubt she is because she was one of the smartest girls in our grade.

Born one month apart, classmates from kindergarten on, she and I shared a popular-at-the-time, first name (in case you missed it), as well as highly developed verbal abilities (top reading group!) and dark  brown hair. She was Nancy M. and I was Nancy W. We both excelled in spelling bees, english and social studies. Teachers always called on us because they knew we knew the answers. Our Moms were close friends and chatted often. Apparently a frequent topic of their conversation was how their daughters were doing in school.

When I came home after school with a newly graded test or quiz, the first question my Mom would often ask me was:

“What grade did Nancy M. get?”

Forever I was to be compared with Nancy M. And forever I was the one who received the occasional A-minus while Nancy M. dutifully came home with straight A’s.

I’m sure my Mom (who sadly, is no longer here to ask) never intended to create in me the belief that an A-minus was akin to a failing grade. But that is how her frequent question made me feel. I did well academically, but knew that however well I did, there was always someone out there, named Nancy or not, who got the A when I got the A-minus.

The legend of Nancy M. made me more sensitive when I became a Mom. I was determined to raise my kids without that theme of comparative childhoods.

Yet as hard as I tried not to put pressure on my own kids, anxieties about their academic success did cross my mind, even if they didn’t cross my lips.

One of my young adults tells me that I was always measuring his performance against other kids. To hear him tell it, his childhood was filled with stress-inducing, albeit unspoken, parental expectations hovering above him at all times like a cartoon thought bubble.

My other young adult remembers it differently.

I know you and Dad went to top colleges. So I expected I would do the same.” She tells me I didn’t have to say a word to know what was expected of her but that most of the pressure she put on herself was self-driven.

So I started to think during this March Madness a/k/a The College Admission Season:

Is it what we say as parents – or sometimes what we don’t say – that causes our kids to feel that sometimes overwhelming stress to succeed?

Last night I watched a new TV show that my friend Caroline (devoted readers of my Blog may remember her from “Road Trip” fame)  introduced me to. Called “Fresh Off the Boat”, it seems at first glance to be the kind of laugh-a-minute sitcom I usually don’t see. But this one is different, laughs yes, but subtle too, focusing on the immigrant experience, through a Chinese-American family who is trying to fit in without losing their values.

In last night’s episode, the Mom, Jessica Huang, adroitly played by actress Constance Wu, tells her children, as she does everyday:

If you are going to do something, be the best.”

But so well-written is the show that she doesn’t come off as a stereotypical, perfection-demanding, “Tiger Mom.” Instead we understand that the pressure she puts on her kids is because she truly wants them to be happy. And in her mind, being successful = being happy.

That made me examine my own parenting motives.  I always said “Do your best” to my kids before they participated in a spelling bee in elementary school, had a math test in middle school or took the SAT in high school.

But perhaps what my kids really heard was not the explicit “Do your best” –  but the implicit message “Be the best.”?

It is too late now to take back what I said or didn’t say to my own kids. But if yours are still young enough to be somewhere between math quizzes and the SAT – or even more importantly if they are looking at or are in college now – – the lesson here is that even if we don’t say it aloud our kids still hear the – do well! – succeed! – be the best! – pressure-inducing messages loud and clear.

And stress, teens and college students are an increasingly combustible mental health mix.

From a Mom who knows, please let them do their best without worrying that they must always be the best. Even if Jessica Huang feels differently.



Filed under Adult Kids, College, Education, Mental Health, Moms, Parenting, Raising Kids, Women, Young Adult Mental Health

8 responses to “Lessons from an A-Minus Childhood: “Do Your Best” or “Be the Best”?

  1. Yes Nancy this is a great message.On the other extreme is no expectations, just do it even if you don’t try your best if you want to or don’t and that is fine too.
    I have a good friend who was brought up that average was just fine and he is so much more than average. His own confidence to exceed didn’t happen well into his adult life. He started med school at age 32!

    I do enjoy that show. It shows expectations, “write it 5 times” when something is wrong from flash cards, Mom or child!


  2. Great post this week! My daughter is a junior at a small parochial prep school, and in order to apply to the colleges that will work for her, she must maintain a B average, a 3.0. I am not asking for anything more! (Small liberal arts schools in the 2,000 students range–she would SINK at a large university, so the UC and California State colleges here are not an option) She has learning differences (auditory processing disorder) so, while this GPA is doable, it is still a challenge for her… not easy! She has told me that I pressure her, even though I, too, simply tell her, “Do your best. That’s all that I have ever asked.” Meanwhile, I was a nearly straight A student, both in high school and college, because I pushed myself… and I also knew that my parents, neither of whom went to college, expected it, without ever really verbalizing it.


    • Hilary – good luck with your daughter! I graduated from a small liberal arts college as did my daughter and I am a big fan of that kind of learning environment. Thanks for writing, Nancy


  3. JoyPageManuel

    Nancy, this resonated so much with me. I, too, was brought up to succeed academically and I also admit that I’m highly stressed. I felt nothing I did was good enough, ‘best’ enough and though I’m much better now, I know that that part of me is still there. Thanks so much for this reminder. I have an elementary school aged son and I’m guilty of stressing him out. I am aware and so I try to temper my expectations but as you pointed out, most of the time they just know without us saying anything. This is truly a must-read for any parent, esp. the type-A ones! And yes, love Fresh Off the Boat too! I’m not Chinese. Am Filipino. And I can relate to the pressures that immigrants live through while still trying not to be a Tiger Mom. Balance is always tough but it’s really where we all need to be, right? Thanks again!


  4. I’m like you and are looking at life from the other side as far as my kids are concerned. I feel that at times I did put too much pressure on my kids to do their best, but my daughter says she put the pressure on herself to do well on herself as well.


  5. I am currently struggling with my own anxieties about my children’s academic success, so this post is timely. Thanks for writing it.


  6. Pat

    I work with teenagers and I think the pressure to succeed academically is even greater during these tougher economic times.


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