Raising the Ambitious Child

Ambition. It’s what the goal of the week is for my son, instructed by his teacher at yesterday’s conference. Really, it’s the goal for the whole year. Ambition to do his work neatly and with care. Ambition to pay attention during class. Ambition to show he is there to learn by staying near the front of the class anytime the teacher has something to show the class to give them more insight into what they are learning about. This week, ambition is the focus as we enter the second half of the year, eventually saying goodbye to 3rd grade as he enters the higher grades at a different school. It’s ambition to change the negative habits of yesterday and create positive habits for tomorrow.

Ambition, according to Mr. M, means two things. First, it’s brought on by enthusiasm to reach a goal. That morning, when the teacher had come over to the Taz’s desk to point out a couple of things, my son sighed and got an attitude of defeat. He would have to re-do everything he had already done to make the paper correct. Mr. M asked my son if he is bothered by him coming over and helping him without being asked. Truthful as an 8 year old, my son told him “yes” and said that he’d prefer if Mr. M only came over when he asked for help. That’s when Mr. M pointed out that my son doesn’t ask for help because he doesn’t seem to know when he needs it. He encouraged him to ask for help if he doesn’t understand what they are learning or why his answer seems to be different from the rest of the class. Together, they worked out that, at this point, it is actually ok if the teacher comes over and checks out my son’s work and helps him when he needs it. And that’s when he addressed my son’s attitude towards his help. His impression of my son sighing and moaning over more work to do was all too familiar in my house, and it made me laugh. My son got a sheepish grin on his face as I related to Mr. M’s description with my own rendition of what it was like while he did homework at home.

Me: You didn’t write out the sentences for these words you had to correct, you missed the corrections for this paragraph, and you didn’t even do this side of the paper.

Taz: Aw man! I just want to have fun! I thought today was going to be a good day!

Mr. M talked to my son about a different attitude he could have when errors were found and needed to be fixed. “Oh! Now I see what I did!” He had my son repeat it to him. At first my son said it in a monotone voice, still picking at the jeans with a hole in the knee. But Mr. M stopped him midsentence and told it to him again. Together, with zest, they repeated the words. “Oh! Now I see what I did!”

The second part of ambition is what it leads to – success. We talked about my son’s progress report that he brought home. The report only had numbers of 3, 3+ and 4 on it. On a number scale, a 4 is equal to an “A”, and a 3 is equal to a “B”. So his report card was exceptionally good. There were also notes about what he needed to work on, but Mr. M noted that the Taz had improved a lot since the beginning of the year. But we both agreed that the Taz was capable of so much more, and could possibly have all 4s. While math is his strong subject, Mr. M was especially impressed with my son’s writing skills. The Taz had recently written a letter to me from school, reminding me of a task I needed to complete to be turned in to the teacher. The teacher had told him the points he had wanted him to convey, and my son took the reins and wrote out a full letter. It read like he was talking to me, completely clear and well thought out. This is coming from the child who, last year, wrote sentences for class that had to use two spelling words. The sentences he wrote were mostly three words long. Over the year, he was suddenly writing long essays with ease, stories with description and conversation, and letters home to his mom about how he needs a letter to the teacher every time he forgets his homework.

The teacher was very adamant to my son that he is a smart boy, and capable of so much. He was capable of being successful, and had my son repeat the word “success” to him. My son, at that point, was still more interested in what was going on outside, or how much bigger he could make the hole in his jeans. And he mumbled “success” a couple times before the teacher finally accepted his most enthusiastic reply.

After the conference, I talked to the Taz in the car, telling him how wonderful it was that he had worked so hard to get to where he was at now, and how confident I was in his abilities. The Taz groaned in the backseat, tired of the conversation on ambition, just wanting to be done. But I was invigorated by the motivation of the meeting, excited about everything in store for my son.

“Let’s put it this way,” I said to the Taz. “You want to drive a sports car one day?” I asked him. He nodded his head, but then shook his head.

“I’ll probably just drive a cheap car when I grow up,” he said.

“I don’t think so. I could see you in a sports car,” I told him. He grinned at that, no doubt thinking of himself behind the wheel of some sleek, red car that went fast down the highway and took turns while hugging the road. “Well, to get that fancy sports car, you’re going to have to make money. And how do you get money?” I asked him. “You have a really good job. And to get that good job, you have to have done really well in school. And to do well in school, you have to WANT to do well. That’s why we’re meeting with your teacher. That’s why I’m so excited about the progress you’re making, and excited for your future. I want you to make a lot more money than me. I can see you making a lot of money. And I see you driving that fancy sports car.”

“I’ll probably be poor when I grow up,” he said to that, intent on staying in the negative.

“I highly doubt it,” I said back.

“I’ll bet you a hundred dollars I’ll be poor,” he told me, $100 being the equivalent to all the money in the world in his mind.

“It’s a deal,” I said. To that, his eyes widened and he grinned. I continued, “If you live your life with ambition, truly doing your absolute best at everything you set your mind to, and you still end up poor and unsuccessful, I will give you $100.” And we shook on it.

I was talking with Mr. Wonderful’s step-father last night, relaying the story of the Taz and his teacher, and how his goal for the week is to have ambition to be successful. And after I told the story, he told me this:

“There was this 40 year old man, some years ago, that called into a radio station after hearing a similar story about a boy that was being encouraged by his teacher. He told the host that in all his 40 years, he had failed at everything he had attempted in his life. He had lost job after job. He had three failed marriages under his belt. Every attempt he made to turn things around resulted in another failure. And he couldn’t figure out why until this very moment. When he was a young boy and sitting in a parent teacher conference with his mother and teacher, the teacher had turned to his mother and said,

“Your boy will never amount to anything.”

The man thanked the host, and told him that now that he knew, he could finally move on, and change things for the better – for good.”

Without our encouragement, our children will never be ambitious. If they are brought down time after time, they will believe the negative and will become the negative. Ambition is directly linked to self-esteem. If a child has low self-esteem, they will see the glass as half empty and won’t even be able to do their best. But if a child is encouraged repeatedly, told that he is capable of so much, and is encouraged to picture his future as something wonderful, they will believe that. And they will live it. Think of it this way – if a child is told that their room is a mess after they just spent time cleaning it, they will be less enthusiastic to help out the next time. But if they are praised for their efforts, raised up by compliments on how well they cleaned their room, they will be more enthusiastic about cleaning it the next time, and maybe even keep it tidy in between cleanings. If a child is told they are stupid, put down because their report card is less than satisfactory, or told they will never amount to anything because they can’t seem to stop goofing off in class – what exactly is going to motivate them to try harder? But if they are praised for their strengths, they will try even harder to utilize those strengths. And if they are recognized when they turn the corner on something they have been struggling with, they will be more apt to continue down that positive path.

Honey attracts more flies than vinegar.

It is enthusiasm about the goals that have been set that motivate ambition. And it is ambition that leads to success. But what leads to the path of enthusiasm? Our encouragement. And that’s what it takes to raise an ambitious child.

Are you making less than $50,000 a year?  You may be able to qualify for EITC and get up to $5,000 or more back, even if you don’t owe taxes.   See the forums for more details.

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5 thoughts on “Raising the Ambitious Child”

  1. Dear Wine Country Mom, As much as I agree with your main point of helping to instill an attitude of success and positive self-esteem in our children, I believe you are way off the mark with relating it to making a lot of money. This kind of emphasis on consumerism (the sports car) and material gain are exactly what has led us to a society obsessed with personal profit and the economic crisis we are currently experiencing. The pay-off is growing up to be successful at whatever their talents and chosen pursuits lead them to and being able to make a positive contribution to society with those. We all know that money can’t buy happiness. Happiness comes from having enough and being able to contribute to others and this is what our children dearly need to learn.
    Another mom’s perspective

  2. In general terms, I agree with what you are saying, Barbara. It is more important to want to be successful in something you love, making the world a better place because of it. Money should not be the goal for success and happiness. But try teaching that to a sullen 8 year old who is in the backseat of the car and tuning out everything that is being said to him because it is not capturing his attention. Yet if you mention something like a sports car or making money, the kid perks right up. The Taz is a future business man. Every week he is dreaming up new schemes for making money. So I chose to use an example that he could relate to and envision. I’m not saying that it should work for everyone – but for my son, it got the message I was trying to convey across in terms he could understand.

  3. Wow! I can SO identify with this post! This has always been a cahllenge for my sons–they set tehir own bars pretty low. Oddly enough, not for my daughter. I don’t know why.

  4. “But if they are praised for their strengths, they will try even harder to utilize those strengths.” I don’t think this is the complete picture. For kids to be ambitious they have to have the bar set higher than just getting by. I’m all for praise, but if the kids are getting Cs and Ds, are missing assignments and school, then what? Kids and people not naturally ambitious, it takes a gnawing inside and may come from a lot of places, but I not from praise. Right now I’m thinking the best thing for both my teenagers right now would be to cut off their internet and I-phone service, unplug the TV and all the video games, and see if the silence thereby created will induce some creative thinking.

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