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Evaluating Love and Merit: The Big Questions


Coffee and Classics Recap – September 16, 2016                                                                                                        by Jacquie Miller and Angie Way Copetillo


  • What is success?
    • How have we defined success in our own lives? To what do we direct our best efforts? 
  • What conditions in our society contribute to parents’ insecurity about their children’s future? 
    • How do we as Christians teach our children a true barometer for success?
  • How do we help our children form a healthy sense of identity?
    • What makes a person valuable or lovable?
  • What is love?
    • The gospel forces us to separate performance and love. As one participant said, “My performance is not the reason God loves me!”

Our first Coffee and Classics of the year centered on David Brooks’ New York Times article “Love and Merit,” which highlights the preponderance of praise and honing in today’s parenting, and the conditional, merit-based love that children can internalize as a result. And it certainly raised some important questions. Since so much of our merit-based affections revolve around school life, we considered this an important conversation.

A few of the current cultural influences we discussed:

  • The all-encompassing college admissions process. Everything from college costing more, to more children attending college, to joblessness after college – the college process seems to consume so much of our focus for our children. These variables tend to skew the definition of success, the meaning of education, and the ideal goal of restoration in God’s image.
  • Increased standard of living. The new “normal” is inflated relative to past generations and continues to rise. Financial pressure affects us all, and the desire to help our children avoid it in the future can lead to overemphasis on achievement.
  • Media-stirred fears. Prevalence of media stories highlighting dangers for children often heighten parental fears unrealistically.
  • Increase in material blessing and more transient communities. Where once families tended to stay planted in one city, now families frequently move and change jobs, thereby eliminating the vibrant communities and familial support parents once had to help in times of need. Instead, we rely on the material provision.
  • Decreasing childhood independence. Children are increasingly dependent. We pave the path for children instead of preparing children for the path.

As we reflected on these questions together, it became clear that our primary goal is to communicate to our children from the deep convictions we hold rather than the temporary fears or insecurities we may feel. It also was clear that we all struggle with this issue.


Tips for Tackling the Cultural Trend

1) Be careful what we praise. Focus on the character traits and efforts we want our child to strive for rather than particular outcomes.

  • I am so proud of the effort and work you showed here. vs. Wow, you made the highest grade – you are so smart; I am so proud of you.
  • The kindness you demonstrated to your friend showed such thoughtfulness. vs. I can’t believe your friend did that.

2) Expect and embrace our child’s mistakes and failures as a normal, healthy part of life. Help them place value on the process of learning from mistakes.

  • I know that was hard, and I am proud of you for pushing through it.
  • Sometimes life is difficult, and I am so glad to see you demonstrate such a great attitude even through the difficulty.

3) Be honest about our struggles and failures. Model being a person who struggles and is still loveable.

  • Tell stories of your struggles with your children. Tell them stories of how God helped you through tough times. This builds connection and faith.

Share examples of how you struggle, even now. Kids can tend to think, especially as they hit middle school and beyond, that adults have it all put together, so this time of struggle and temptation is something they must bear alone. Show them how God still sees you through tough times. With interim reports on the horizon, we also discussed specific ways to balance a pursuit of excellence with unconditional love:


Interpreting the Report Card

Seek your student’s perspective before you weigh in.

  • Ask open-ended questions. Understanding the story behind the grade can significantly change the conversation.
  • With an older student, give him time to process and feel a sense of ownership by asking him to reflect and self-assess before meeting to discuss the grade report.
  • Don’t underestimate a younger student’s ability to think. Ask him where he feels most confident and least confident.

Remember that you give value to what you praise.

  • If you praise A’s, your student will value herself based on that outcome.
  • Instead, focus on the character traits behind the grades. It is wonderful when we achieve a desired outcome. But fear creeps in when we are measured by a standard beyond our control.
  • Help her aim for best effort, focus, effort, diligence, etc. Celebrate these achievements.
  • Expect and embrace our child’s mistakes and failures as a normal, healthy part of life. Help her place value on the process of learning from mistakes.

Do not allow reports to become a measure of worth.

  • Take a moment before you talk about the grade report to reflect on what gives us worth and what is a life well lived. Help your child put the grade report into perspective. It’s a tool to use to know how to best direct his efforts.



Coffee and Classics is a monthly gathering focused on conversation about community and Christian classical education. Join us Oct. 14th at 8:15am in the assembly hall at Gould Cottage for another edifying time together.

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