What Happened to “Just Do Your Best?”

We as parents tell our children “just do your best” so often that it is pretty much universally accepted as a staple of parent speak. It seems that when our children are hesitant or anxious about trying something new or difficult, we believe that we can calm them and even motivate them by telling them that all they need to do is their best. Swimming lessons for young ones can be a nightmare. Years ago my son sat on the edge of the pool holding a “noodle” and pretended he was fishing. Other children were throwing themselves into the pool, floating on their backs, and actually doing what the instructor was asking of them. My 4 year old had decided to opt out. And as often happens when one chooses to go that route, he ended the session unable to swim. To me, his strategy wasn’t a winning one, regardless of how cute and original the whole fishing thing may have seemed. Was it a big deal? No. It was a winter swimming lesson for a class of preschoolers. A small-scale fail. When my son is brought in to pitch with the bases loaded and no outs, all I can ask of him is that he do his best. And whether he strikes out three batters in a row or walks in a few runs, I know that he has done what has been asked of him. And he probably learns the most when, despite his best efforts, he struggles mightily to get out of the inning. I expect all three of my boys to do their very best when they take a test. Any kind of test—whether it’s an end-of-trimester exam, a math quiz, or a standardized exam. In watching parents across the nation opt their children out of standardized testing, I am left wondering why they have changed course and strayed from their usual mantra of “just do your best.” Why is this childhood experience so different in their eyes? I could ask my kid’s coach not to put him in the game to pitch when the deck is stacked against him. But I don’t. I could look at a whopping night of homework and say, “This is too much, you don’t need to finish it.” But I don’t. And I could say, “Oh, these standardized tests are silly and don’t mean anything and might make you uncomfortable or anxious.” But I don’t. And I never would. Saying that would send the message that I doubt my oldest son’s ability to persevere and succeed. It would send the message that I want to protect him from any discomfort or that he has something to fear. I didn’t send any of those messages, and so in his case, he hopped in the car during PARCC and said, “I actually kind of liked it.” Our decisions about our kids are always a combination of the mind and heart. The whole concept of helicopter parenting would not have come about if not for the intersection of the mind’s worry and the heart’s love. But just as no one seems to think helicopter parenting is a good thing for kids or parents, I don’t think opting out of testing is good for kids or parents. Send them to school. Have them take the test. And say, as you always have, “Just do your best.”
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...

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