If you have a high schooler, you’re familiar with the getting-into-the-right-college rat race. From SAT/ACT prep, to college essay practice, to swamped extracurricular schedules, our students can easily be swept away in the rush to make it into the best schools.
Naturally, we want our children to reach for their dreams. And of course we’d love to see them attend universities with good programs and reputations if that’s the right path for them. But we have to ask ourselves what might be sacrificed in that process — and make sure that the pressure to be stellar college applicants doesn’t interfere with them becoming stellar people.
Because there are so many things that are more important than where our kids go to college — abilities, attributes, and ambitions that will serve them long past the application process. These are the things I really want my kids to internalize:
1. They are curious and know how to learn.
The goal of education is to raise lifelong learners. No matter what paths they pursue, our kids need to always ask questions and know how to seek the answers. If they maintain that childlike curiosity their whole lives, their learning will lead them where they need to go.
2. They treat others with kindness and respect.
Academic achievement is useless if a brilliant mind is not accompanied by a good heart. In fact, it’s dangerous, which is why we’ve tried to prioritize character with our kids over everything else. A formally educated jerk is far more problematic to society than a less educated person who is kind, compassionate, and respectful.
3. They know how to stand up for themselves and others.
While being kind and compassionate, it’s vital that our young people have the strength and courage to stand up — and stand out, if necessary — when something’s not right. I want my kids to know that injustice doesn’t get a pass, whether it’s against them, someone they know and love, or perfect strangers.
4. They give back to their community.
Greed and selfishness are at the root of so many ills in our society, and our kids have received so much more than they’ve rightfully earned simply by the happenstance of their birth. We’ve tried to instill the notion that “Of he who has much, much is required,” and that living in a community — any kind of community — means being a contributing member of it.
5. They know how to be a good friend.
Having friends is one thing; being a good friend is another. I hope we have taught our kids what supporting a friend looks like in word and in deed. I hope they understand that each friendship is unique, see the value in having a diverse group of friends, and give as much as they get from those connections.
6. They take time to tap into their spirit.
So many people try to distract themselves from the big questions that come in moments of quiet stillness. Whatever spiritual path my children take, I want them to be accustomed to sitting with those questions, not running away from them. I want them to nurture their mind, body, and spirit in a way that helps them find inner peace and balance in their lives.
7. They know how to ask for help.
Independence is an important quality, but it must be balanced by the ability to recognize when help is needed and the wisdom and humility to ask for it. There is no shame in relying on others. We live in families and communities for a reason; teens should know that asking for help is a life skill, not a weakness.
8. They feel safe in our family.
Everyone needs a soft place to land at the end of a hard day. This probably goes doubly for teens and young adults who are in a time of great excitement and opportunity, but also great change and uncertainty. I want our kids to never question whether they have a safe space in our home, or whether they will be fully and joyfully embraced for who and what they are.
9. They know how to be in the present moment.
We live in a fast-paced world filled with a million distractions. Do our teens know how to connect with the people they’re sitting across from? Do they notice small beauty around them? Can they enjoy the simple pleasure of watching a sunset? Are they able to just be where they are in the moment?
10. They practice an attitude of gratitude.
Striving for greater things is admirable, but learning to be happy with what one already has is a gift I hope my kids till take from our home. Too many people never experience fulfillment because they’re always seeking more. When we’re able to recognize and acknowledge our blessings, it’s easier to find happiness and contentment wherever we are.
I hope my kids pursue their dreams, and those pursuits may include getting into a prestigious school. But I will make sure my kids know that their alma mater is not the be all end all goal of their young lives, and that they understand that these are the things that will define them, not where they get their degree.
Annie Reneau is a writer, wife, and mother of three with a penchant for coffee, wanderlust, and practical idealism. On good days, she enjoys the beautiful struggle of maintaining a well-balanced life. On bad days, she binges on chocolate and dreams of traveling the world alone. Her writing can be found on Upworthy and Scary Mommy, in O Magazine, and in a big ol’ slush pile inside her head. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram