Your Questions Answered: Does Best Effort Kill Love of Learning?

Are we killing the love of learning by requiring the best effort from our children? Let’s talk about that. Today we want to dive into a question that we received, and here to help me discuss it is my friend and coworker, Laura Pitney.

Sonya: Laura, it’s good to have you back.

Laura: Thank you for having me.

Sonya: Here is the question we’re going to discuss: “I’m confused on how I expect my child’s very best and instilling a love of learning. I feel that by expecting the very best from my 10-year-old and 11-year-old son, it will kill their love of learning. What am I missing?”

Laura: That’s a great question.

Sonya: It is. I think we need to back up first and define what we mean by love of learning. In my mind, it’s not so much we have to instill it, as every child is born with it. They have this innate sense of curiosity about everything around them, and we just have to be careful we don’t squelch that.

Laura: Children are naturally curious; and when the questions arise or they’re curious about something, one way we can feed that love of learning is to be just as intrigued alongside them and to help them ask another question, and find the answer, and then dig a little deeper. Or, if they’re interested in frogs in a pond, “Let’s go find a pond with frogs in it.” Walk alongside them as they ask the questions, that’s naturally what we want to do.

Sonya: Yes. And sometimes that gets harder as they get older. This is about a 10- and 11-year-old, so it’s possible that their love of learning has been squelched along the way. Let’s talk first about some ways that it can be squelched. One of the ideas that comes to my mind is if they were in an atmosphere that was focused on just grades, just dry facts, or competition. It got the focus off of the learning itself as a delight and on those other items.

Laura: It’s almost like they were forced to conform on the outside, but not on the inside. That love of learning really does come from the heart. If they’ve come out of an environment that really just wanted the conformity of the outside student, of the performance or the behavior, that kind of thing, then I can definitely see how that would feed into being a negative thing for a child; and that would be a hard transition to get that back. The parent has a good role in that, or the teacher: baby steps. When you have all the things in place, you’re using good books that lend themselves to good questions or ideas, or once you have all the tools in place, that love of learning could happen easier. Then the parent or the teacher’s role is to make sure that you’re taking a deep breath and giving them time to process and ask questions. So it’s something kids can overcome, but it’s something for the parent or teacher to be more mindful of as they see that hindrance or the lack of that love of learning.

Then the parent or the teacher’s role is to make sure that you’re taking a deep breath and giving them time to process and ask questions. So it’s something kids can overcome, but it’s something for the parent or teacher to be more mindful of as they see that hindrance or the lack of that love of learning.

Sonya: I almost think of it like a plant that has withered, and we need to just nurse it and carefully get it where it’s in the optimal light and give it just the right amount of water, a little fertilizer, and rekindle it—bring it back.

Laura: Right. It’s still there.

Sonya: Yes. It’s there, we just have to get it going again. Another idea for rekindling it would be to make sure we’re including a wide variety of subjects, because not every child is going to love handwriting; not every child is going to love math. They’ll have different areas that they love. And so if we are only giving them a very narrow slice of subjects, it’s possible we’re not hitting the ones that they love.

Laura: Right, and that definitely would affect their desire to want to learn. Yes, they still have to do the subjects that we want them to do or feel like they’re required to do, but you’re correct in encouraging the teacher to make sure she’s giving that wide variety, because again we don’t know what subjects are going to connect with our children differently. And the downside of having narrow subjects is that it does become more task-oriented versus that love-of-learning-oriented. If we already have a narrow track of subjects, then usually our focus is “Let’s just get it done so our school day can be over.”

Sonya: Check it off.

Laura: And check yourself, make sure that your motives as the teacher are right.

Sonya: I think that’s another thing you talked about there that can instill a love of learning or rekindle it: the parent’s attitude, or the teacher’s attitude, not just toward the students’ learning but toward learning in general. Are we modeling an enthusiasm for continuing to learn about everything around us, or are we content to just check off the boxes?

Laura: I agree. Our attitude is an example before them. I think about my own life and the practicality of what you’re saying. I’m not necessarily in school myself, but I’m always trying to learn and do better with things we’re studying at church—there’s always something I can study, so to speak, and grow deeper in—but also in managing my house. There’s lots of things in my home that I may not know how to do. For instance, we had a window break in our master bedroom. A rock had hit the window from the lawnmower and had shattered the outer pane, and so I was like, “Okay, what am I going to do?” We ordered it, but then I was like, “You know what? I can install it; I can figure this out.” And so, thanks to Google and YouTube, I figured out how to do it versus having to pay somebody to come to our home just to slide it out and in. So I felt like that was an example to my children that, “Yes, I don’t know how to do this. I may not want to do it, but it’s a way that I can grow and continue to learn.” So now I feel like, “Oh yeah, I can replace a window!” even though it wasn’t that hard. But it’s the same—

Sonya: Well, it sounds huge.

Laura: It’s the example. It was an example to the kids to fix a problem that was in our home, and it wasn’t necessarily book-related. So that love of learning—that “Oh, we can figure this out or we can do it” or “How would this work if we did it this way?” in general—it’s in the atmosphere of your home naturally, hopefully.

Sonya: Okay, so you’re replacing windows. My big thing: yesterday I decided to try and figure out how to replace the water filters under our sink. Now, everybody’s like, “Well, you unscrew the old one and you screw in the new one,” but I had to learn that! That was the first time I tried doing that. (I’ll let the readers judge which was the hardest task.) But the thing was, we needed to have the habit of best effort as we approached that new learning experience. I don’t think that instilling a habit of giving your best effort is automatically going to squelch a love of learning. I could see how it could, if you weren’t careful. If you focus only on the effort and neglect to kindle that love of learning, you could overbalance it, does that make sense?

Laura: It does, and I think part of that is teaching why they’re doing it. I think that really helps. So I have two examples, one with my daughter, Chloe, who is 10, and we have—

Sonya: Now wait a minute, wait a minute. I thought last time we talked, she was eight.

Laura: Oh, time flies. So here we are.

Sonya: She’s 10 already?

Laura: She’s 10.

Sonya: Wow.

Laura: And she’s a little diva, so I have lots of parenting that I need to do. (laughs) So we just have refocused on her handwriting. Honestly, just being the last and not that she’s been neglected, but my time has just been divvied up differently over the years. So now I’m like, “Oh, let’s just polish that handwriting a little bit.” In her mind, she can write: she can read what she’s writing; she can write letters to her friends or to grandma, that kind of thing. So her reasoning for why she needs to polish it doesn’t exist; she thinks it’s fine. For me, as the teacher, looking at her handwriting, I’m like, “I don’t really think this is your best effort.” I understand where she’s coming from, but I know she can do better. She has the motor skills. I’m not asking anything of her that I know she can’t do. We’re at almost a standstill right now between her heart, understanding why I want it to be better, and my heart as the mom and teacher wanting her to understand she should give her best effort and not just settle. So that’s where I’m at with her. And so one thing I’m just trying to do is not consider it something I’m checking off the daily list but to really watch her do her handwriting, and compliment her when she forms a letter right or touches the line she’s supposed to touch as she’s forming the letters. So one way I’m trying to help her want to give her best is just giving her positive reinforcement and giving her time, versus her just rushing through it to be done. That’s where I’m at with her. I don’t know, I’ll let you know how it ends up.

Sonya: I think that’s important though, that you are taking that step back and talking about the bigger picture, because as we said before, she probably doesn’t love handwriting as a subject. And that’s fine, but we can still instill in her that habit of doing best effort rather than good enough. And that should apply for all of our lives; it’s an important skill to take into our adult lives. So if you can take that step back and just encourage her—”This is why I want you to work on best effort. It’s not so you’ll win a handwriting trophy, but it’s so that you can practice this habit”— I think that’s very important. Keep it up. Keep it going! You can do it!

Laura: Yes, I’ll let you know how it turns out. Another example that has come to mind is over the past weekend, we were getting ready for company at our house. All my kids know how to change their sheets and remake their beds, especially when they’re giving up their beds for company. Obviously you want that hospitality component to be where it should be; clean sheets is a good idea.

Sonya: Good thing.

Laura: So I asked my oldest to change her sheets for her bed so that when her cousins came that they would have clean sheets. And so I’m doing one of the beds and she’s doing her bed, and I look over there and I was just like, “Oh my word, what is she doing?” Like, “Does she not even know how to change sheets?” But she does, she just didn’t care about them being wrinkly. I’m not saying it has to be hotel-standard here, but if you have a fitted sheet, I expect them and they have been taught to make sure they’re over the corners of the mattresses. They shouldn’t be lumpy on the corners. For her, she’s like, “Mom, I know how to make up a bed. They’re fine.” And we had this whole conversation about that the wrinkles don’t bother her, that when she changed her sheets, she’s fine. It literally does not bother her. So we had this conversation about how we need to do it right, and by not having the corners over the mattress, to me, it isn’t right. Because if you move around a lot in your sleep, the sheets are going to—

Sonya: They pop off.

Laura: They come off, and you’re going to be in a little burrito in your blankets.

Sonya: And then your guests are not feeling comfortable in your home.

Laura: Right, and that’s the motive that I tried to point out to her: that it wasn’t what she was comfortable with and what she could care or not care about with her sheets, but what would best make our company feel comfortable. And so we had this conversation. It was a great teaching point that our standard may be good enough for ourselves, but is it the best for the purpose we’re doing it?, which in this case was for company. Usually if you have wrinkly sheets, you tend to think they might be dirty or somebody else has already slept in it. So again, that wasn’t school-related, but it was more of a heart issu, and just something for her to process and think about. It was again what we’re talking about, best effort in that situation. And it affected somebody else. It wasn’t just for her.

Sonya: Yes, that was taking the step back, looking at the bigger picture. That might be a key in the question-asker’s relationship here, too, that, especially with a 10- and 11-year-old, you can have these conversations about why we are expecting best effort and why we’re practicing it. I was thinking about someone who has a love for cooking, let’s say—

Laura: Not me.

Sonya: That’s not you; yes, I know. (laughs) Nor me, but someone, let’s just imagine somebody who has a love for cooking. If they want to improve in that, they might work on their techniques, whether it’s slicing or sautéing, or I don’t know, think of another cooking word here.

Laura: Mixing, you know, you mix stuff.

Sonya: I think you do, yeah, yeah. Insert cooking word here, but they might want to work on those techniques so that they can grow and get better, or changing the window out, or changing the water filters. You work on certain techniques; you practice them so that you can even enjoy that love more.

Laura: I agree. That’s a great analogy, yes.

Sonya: So if there is a particular subject that your child loves to do and has an interest in, I think requiring best effort in the bigger picture is just a way for them to practice and get better and better at learning. Here it is. All right. It just clicked. If best effort is presented as the end, I think it could squelch love of learning. But if it’s presented as a means to an end, you use the best effort. You practice with the best effort so that you can improve, whether in the subject you love or in your ability to do well in life. It’s a means to that end.

Laura: Right, because the end can always be improved. You know what I’m saying? So even if you feel like you’ve perfected something, there’s always going to be a next step or another level. So that makes sense. So smart!

The end can always be improved. So even if you feel like you’ve perfected something, there’s always going to be a next step or another level.

Sonya: No, it just clicked. I think that’s the big difference: if we’re focusing on best effort just for best effort’s sake, or if we’re focusing on best effort so that we can continue to grow and improve and learn as persons in all areas of life. Maybe our children need that reminder. Maybe we need that reminder, as well. Well, I wish you well and your new window, and I hope your company enjoys the beds.

Laura: The beds, sheets.

Sonya: And keep going on the handwriting. We’re going to keep emphasizing best effort for a reason: that we want that child to become the best version of herself that she can possibly be in many areas of life. Thanks.