McNerney: Don’t Tell Your Children To Do Their Best

By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

I, along with so many others, were told over and over during childhood: “I don’t care what grades you get, as long as you do your best.” I am confident that you were also told this. I’m also confident that you have said it to your children, as well. 

But the more I have thought about it, the more I am convinced that it’s a trap, and not a very good parent leadership technique. At first glance, it seems innocuous. We are encouraging our kids to excel, to work hard and not settle for mediocrity. The difficulty is that kids are more literal than we think. Did they try their hardest, all day long, day after day? Of course not. But that is the expectation that we are communicating. Anything less than your best is not good enough.

In my work with children and teens, I have seen many ways they have dealt with this message. At least two ways are unhealthy.

I remember hearing this message quite a bit in my childhood. My father was raised very poor and worked hard for everything he had. He was one of the first soldiers to receive the G.I. Bill, which paid for college. This was something he would never have imagined growing up. He worked extremely hard and earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. 

I, however, did not have that kind of drive. Due to my untreated attention deficit disorder, it always looked like I was lazy. Trying my hardest always looked like I was barely trying. So, after a while, I gave up trying. The expectation was impossible to attain. I became the typical underachieving kid and eventually everyone gave up on pushing me.

The other type of response is to take on the challenge and always try their hardest, to the detriment of their own mental health. I remember working with a teen who told me: “I’ve always been told I’m smart and I need to do my best. Doing my best means doing perfectly. Anything less than 100% is failure.” Consequently, she was anxious and miserable all the time. She had accepted as fact that she needed to always operate at 100% intensity and needed to perform perfectly. She took the “do your best” message literally.

Frankly, I don’t think we mean that anything less than perfection and 100% intensity is failure. At least I hope we don’t mean it. But children are literal and setting such a high bar will inevitably lead to failure. 

I think there is an alternative leadership approach, and it involves remembering our eventual goal. Our goal is to have our children learn how to set goals, self-assess their progress, and self-correct if needed.

If our kids are to learn how to set their own goals, we need to stop setting goals for them. Instead, we should have more conversations asking them what their goals are. I remember asking a 12-year-old: “What grades do you want this quarter?” He paused and said: “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me before.” He knew what his parents wanted from him, but he never took the time to consider what he wanted.

When the grades start coming in, there are many opportunities to help them self-assess. Asking questions such as these can help them determine whether they are on track with their goals:

  • How you feel about these grades?
  • How hard was it to get these grades?
  • How much more work would be needed to improve them?
  • Are these grades going to help you meet your goal of (college, graduation, getting into the next math course, taking an AP course, etc.)?

Asking these questions helps them self-assess and see if they are on track with their goals. These are questions I often ask my clients at the end of grading periods, and I encourage parents to do the same.

The self-correct questions, if needed, are focused on what more needs to be done. What else needs to happen to improve the present situation? It’s easy to give advice at this point but allowing the student to come up with a plan is much more powerful and more likely to work. I also like to ask how many more hours the extra work would require. Most of the time, it doesn’t require much more work to see an increase.

As you look at your student’s second quarter grades in two weeks, try to keep these ideas in mind. Hopefully it will increase the likelihood of the next quarter going even better.


Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at neil@neilmcnerney.com.

Neil McNerney

3 thoughts on “McNerney: Don’t Tell Your Children To Do Their Best

  • 2022-01-21 at 9:11 am
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    Neil McNerney’s advice makes a lot of sense. I sometime hear the rallying cry in Loudoun, “Raise the Bar!” I don’t think that’s necessary. Each of us can set our own goals in life. Children need guidance but not undue pressure. That has the potential to become counter-productive. 

  • 2022-01-21 at 8:16 pm
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    We are simply not challenging children and by constantly lowering expectations, curving grades, removing final exams from their studies, etc, we are raising a generation of mentally weak people. Our kids are growing up having never experienced failure in every aspect of their lives: They fail a test, they get to take it over again because it’s the teacher’s fault; they get cut from the team, some parent starts another team for all the poor kids who weren’t good enough to play on the other team either, and the kids are told it’s not them, it’s the coach’s fault.
    A couple of years ago we had arrived at a park for my daughter’s soccer game and the previous game was still going on. I was shocked to see there was a mom standing behind the goal yelling to her daughter “Those goals aren’t your fault, your defense stinks”. Not exactly teaching accountability there, are we?
    I hope it never happens, but if we have to go to war sometime after the next 20 years, we will never win. Our kids are too mentally and mostly physically weak to do what needs to be done to defend this nation.
    I shudder to think what a war against a nation of hungry, passionate, and prepared warriors will do to this country.
    So now we’re not allowed to ask our children to do their best? Sorry, but I happen to believe that only your best effort in anything is acceptable. I wouldn’t have cared if my kids were “D” students, as long as they tried their best.

  • 2022-01-24 at 3:26 pm
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    I cut my kids a lot of slack. I tell them I don’t care what grades they get as long as it starts with the letter “A.”

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