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Why Are Our Children No Longer Excellent?
Harry H. Harrison Jr.

Excellence is an elusive goal of parenthood. We all want our children to be excellent, but exactly at what? Throwing a football? Playing the trumpet? Doing a double-back somersault off a balance beam? Can your child be an excellent student and an excellent basketball player and an excellent dancer and an excellent person at 13? Or is "good enough" OK? Can we be happy with a child who's good enough? Can our children be happy knowing they aren't even above average?

This is the dilemma of parents.  Should we want our children to be excellent and if so, how do we turn this young boy eating doodle bugs on the porch into an excellent dentist?

The fact of the matter is that parents in western countries have lost their focus on excellence for several reasons. Which is why the U.S. now tests so low in math and science, and why even though the number of students attending college has risen 50 percent in the last 25 years, the number of math, science, engineering and technology majors combined doesn't equal the number of visual and performing arts graduates. And over 40 percent of those attending will leave without a degree, mired in debt.

As a nation, we subsidize education, but when our college students are borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars for degrees that they might not be able to pay back in 20 years because there is simply no demand for their B.A. in Artistic Dance, then excellence becomes a national concern. When there are no new engineers or doctors because those degrees are too hard, that is a national concern. When adult children are moving home because their degree doesn't qualify them for a high-paying job, that means there are no new houses being sold, no new furniture being built, no new Internet connections being laid, and no need for new plumbers and electricians. An economist at Moody's Analytics estimated that each time a new household is formed, that adds $145,000 to the economy. Multiply that by millions of kids moving back home, and you have a national economic crisis. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of 16 to 24 year olds either working or looking for work is the lowest since 1948. Over 40 percent of today's young people aren't bothering to look for a job. Almost half of the population doesn't even pay income taxes.

Simply put, we have lost our focus on excellence, and not only are we feeling it now, but it will come to haunt us in future generations.

As parents, we know when something is wrong, even if we're hesitant to do anything about it. A 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found that 6 in 10 Americans believe parents do not put enough pressure on their children, as opposed to China where 68 percent of the population believes parents put too much pressure on their kids. This no doubt is why China is on the verge of eclipsing the U.S. as the world's superpower.

So, how have we so missed the mark on developing excellence in our children?

Any discussion of excellence can be confused by two issues. The first issue is mistaking excellence with perfection. Perfection is not possible, so sweep that from your mind. Even Jesus was hardly the perfect child. He exasperated his mother and father by disappearing at 13, causing a frantic search for him. Excellence does not require perfection. The best surgeons lose patients. The finest priests wrestle with demons. The most dedicated students can blow a test. Developing perfection is not possible. But developing excellence is.

The second issue that must be addressed is the belief that excellence is a gene. It is not. It is something developed over time by practice, responsibility, suffering, mentoring and setting ridiculously fantastic goals. It is also the result of a decision. We can train our children in the habits that lead to excellence, we can instill the character and demand the accountability that leads to excellence, but the child is the one who ultimately decides on excellence. Of course, many things require a gift of innate skill. Not everyone is born to be an NFL quarterback or a doctor or a nuclear physicist, but we all can be excellent at something. And only a tiny fraction of people born with innate skills actually become excellent at them.

Here's the problem: excellence requires suffering and we don't want our kids to suffer.  We are at a time in our country where the last thing we emphasize is excellence, and it has hurt us greatly. If we are to survive as a country, all of us need to be challenged to be a different kind of parent, educator or mentor to a child. It will change their lives. And it will change the world too.

Harry H. Harrison Jr. is a New York Times best-selling parenting author with over 3.5 million books in print. He has been interviewed on over 25 television programs, and featured in over 75 local and national radio stations, including NPR. His books are available in over 35 countries throughout Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Norway, South America, China, Saudi Arabia, and in the Far East. For more information visit  Permission granted for use on
Tags: Character, Character-Courage-Conscience, Children, College, Education, Kids, Parenting, Perfection, Personal Responsibility, Responsibility, School, Setting goals, Stay-at-Home Mom, Students, Values
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