Our society is structured such that one is either deemed to be a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’. This definitive categorization begins from the moment a child enters the formal school setting, or perhaps even earlier. Thinking about it further, this categorization actually begins with the parents themselves. When an infant only sits at eight or nine months, parents and family members already categorize the infant as a “slow learner or developer”. Have you ever thought about what it implies to say that? The infant has failed to live up to your or society’s expectations. Take note of the word ‘failed” in the previous sentence. Months down the line when your infant only says his first word at eighteen months, again we see him as having failed some developmental milestone that should have been achieved months earlier. And it is so much easier to talk about a “slow learner” than it is to look inward to see whether you have provided an optimum environment in which your child can flourish.
So, from the very beginning, you have categorized your infant as either a failure or a success. By so doing, you also interact with that infant differently. A “slow” infant is carried longer, such that when they take longer to crawl, you can reassure yourself that you were right in labeling your infant as being slow. However, an infant who sits unsupported at four months, is seen as clever, and is given more opportunities to show just how clever they are. When visitors come, you proudly boast what a fast learner your child is and sit her down to show the visitors that she can sit unsupported. Even an infant is able to pick up on the pride the parents have in its achievements, and will try to always please the parents. As the parent, this encouragement allows for more opportunities for the infant to prove their success to you.
But what is behind our obsession with whether our infants are succeeding or failing in their developmental milestones? Could it be that the infant’s success is by extension a success of your parenting capabilities? Unfortunately, this categorization does not end there. The educational system is based on the premise of success and failure that is not determined by the individual child’s ability, but on some standardization that, in the first place, was based on children from middle-class western backgrounds. Most adults’ self-esteem problems actually begin right here in the school system. School reports show what “number” your child is in class. Those who make the top three positions are paraded by the teachers as the good students. What about the rest of the 37 students? The child who is at the bottom of that list will always feel like a failure and is treated as such by the teacher, the school, the class and the parents. When the child moves from position 40 to position 39, should we not be praising that child? By not doing so, we teach our children that being a success means coming in the top three. Learning should be about making progress, not making “the grade”.
We live our entire lives making “the grade”. In school its in the form of an “A” or “B” grade; at work its in the form of moving up the ladder as quickly as possible; in life its about buying the latest SUV and the five bedroom home inhabited by only myself and my spouse; spending long hours at work to make sure to keep my children at Westwood. One is often not even cognizant of the cost involved in trying to be a success in life. Long hours spent in the office means we don’t even make time to sit down with our children as they do their homework, but chastise them for getting “C” and “D” grades when their report is out. We teach our children that their worth is in their ability to meet our expectations for them. It is little wonder that the more we do this, the worse their grades get, leading to a vicious cycle of academic poor performance and parental disappointment and chastising.
A child’s choice of subjects is also determined by the success or failure of a particular subject. The students with higher grades are selected for pure sciences and advanced math classes. The “C” math class is packed with students who have given up on ever getting math, and teachers who find it not worth their while to put in the effort needed to regain the students’ confidence in themselves, which the teacher himself lacks. The categorization of students in this manner also boxes them into particular carriers ÔÇô the science students will be the doctors and the less academically inclined will be the Comm. and B-Humanities students.
The irony of it all is that many of the science students cross over to economics, accounts and humanities.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. As one applies for a job, one is further subjected to categorization. Was this a 2:1 or 2:2 student? Capability for job performance is, to a large extent, determined by academic transcripts. One could be an exceptional theorist and have no clue about its practical application in the real world. Interviews are further followed by psychometric testing ÔÇô which again categorizes one as either a potentially successful employee or not.
I came across a quote that encapsulates the message we should get from this: “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah). Your child may not be an “A” student, but she has immeasurable value as a human being that no amount of formal education or work experience can equate. She could be poor at science but great at sculpture ÔÇô praise her instead for her strengths. The reality of our world is that our worth is determined by grades ÔÇô PSLE grades, JC exam results, Form Five exams, university grades and pre-employment psychometric tests.
Success and failure are relative, and differ from one person to the next. It should instead be measured in light of previous experiences. The child who moves from position 40 to position 36 has succeeded more than the child who remains at number 2 throughout. The average student who becomes CEO of a company has succeeded just as well as the poor student who becomes a sought after plumber. Let us learn to measure our own success and those of others around us in ways that truly reflect how far one has come ÔÇô not how they measure with society’s expectations of them.
As a person gets older and reflects on life, the things that really matter are not what grade they got in primary school or university. Neither is it how much they contributed to the growth of a particular company. Conversations with the elderly have taught me that what matters most in life is the legacy you leave within your own family ÔÇô children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Reflect on that a moment and reconsider where your own inestimable value lies ÔÇô that should always be the guide you use to measure your own worth.