I have said it to my teen, and you have said it to your teen: “Just do your best.”
“You do not need to be perfect,” we say, “just as long as you do your best…in math, in dance class, in science, in English, in soccer, etc.
Why do our teens always have to do their best?
What is the message we send when we tell them that their “best” is required at all times.
We say this with the best of intentions. We often say it to ease the pressure, to let our teen know it is OK if they do not achieve the highest pinnacle of success, as long as they have worked as hard as they can towards it.
Of course, it is not bad for any teen, or any person, to “do their best” in any particular endeavor at any time. But is it fair or reasonable to ask for it in all areas, all of the time?
I don’t think so.
I know, you don’t want mediocrity from your beautiful child. I get it. You want them to reach for the stars.
Even so, here is why I ask you to think about saying, Just Do Your Best, less often:
- Every person makes choices about where to put their time and energy, based on time, interest, values, and rewards.. Teens should have the right to do this as well: to care more or less about one thing or another; to be have more or less interest in one thing or another. Here’s a great perspective on it from Alyson Schafer,“Do your best” is a mantra that will surely lead to misery. We have to accept the reality of “good enough.”
- Do your best can be particularly tough on kids with anxiety issues and highly sensitive children. According to Lynn Lyons, a therapist who specialized in working with anxiety, anxious kids already struggle with the idea that everything has to be a certain way. How does a kid who wants to do their best, and worries about doing the right thing, know when they have done their best? This can become another thing to worry about! Lynn Lyons: “When a parent says, ‘as long as you do your best’, that will throw an anxious kid over the edge. ‘Oh my god what does that mean, is it good enough?’” You can hear her talk more about this, and anxiety in general, on the Launching Your Daughter Podcast.
- If your teen has high expectations for themselves, they may never feel they have done their best, no matter what they’ve done. Asking them to do their best in all things can lead to unhealthy perfectionism, stress and exhaustion.
What to Say Instead of Just Do Your Best
- Help your teen learn to prioritize.When you have a lot to do, you often put more time into one or two things that matter the most (for whatever reason). Talk about how you prioritize (role modeling). Ask them what is important to them, and tell them what is important to you. If something they need to do is of utmost importance to you – talk about it: “I think this is important for you to work really hard on because it can earn you a scholarship.” OR “I think this is an area where your best is needed because X or Y or Z. What do you think?”
- Recognize effort, and connect it to the payoff.“If you want to make this competitive team, you will have to find time to work hard to learn new skills.” “Or do you prefer the less competitive team where you can just have fun and get some exercise, and do not need to make such an all-out effort.” It is wonderful to see your teen work hard to achieve something, but make it okay for them to opt out of that intense effort sometimes.
- When there is something your teen has to do, but they are not interested in it, and the payoff is low – help them see how they may be able to do “good enough.” I know, good enough seems uncomfortable when we want our kids to excel. But let’s be honest, we all have to sometimes do “good enough” instead of amazing. In his post, You Don’t Always Have to Do Your Best, a letter to my nine year old son, .blogger John Spencer writes, “Life goes by way too quickly. Spend that time doing things that matter.”
- Help your teen learn life-work-social-health balance.We can always do more but what do we give up? What gets out of balance? Our health? Our sleep? Our friendships? Maybe one week you are not the best friend because you have to miss a birthday dinner to study, and the following week you don’t do as well as you could have on a test because you were helping a friend through a crisis. Maybe you do your best and are a high honors student but have no time for friends, and do not get enough sleep. Balance will shift at different times in life, but having awareness of it is a critical life skill.
If you’re a parent who is in the habit of reflexively saying “do your best” to your teen, don’t stress about it, just do your best to say it less!
Laura Cleary is a social worker, parent coach, blogger, and mom to three young adult children and two dogs. To find out more about her, visit lauraclearyparentcoach.com