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“Do your best.”

I grew up with that instruction, as I’m sure many of us did. It’s one of those phrases that is so wise, and also so easily misconstrued. Here’s the challenge…

First, “do your best” is easily heard as “be the best.” That’s because “best,” is, by its nature, comparative. That means that we can only understand what it is in comparison to something or someone else. When the whole world is designed to rank things—grades, sports teams, musical skills, it’s pretty hard to separate your best from the best. This is especially for kids who have limited personal experience to compare. An athlete with years of training behind them might be able to comprehend the idea of a “personal best,” but kids…not so much. And even athletes don’t set “personal bests” everyday, which leads to the next point.

The second challenge is that your best changes from day to day. That’s one of those simple, bold truths that people need to hear more often. And they really need to hear it now.

Your best is not the same from day to day. Picture these two days:

Day one: you have a big presentation to give at work. The night before the presentation, you had plenty of time to review what you were going to say, and you even made a few finishing touches. You went to bed and slept well, confident you knew the material inside and out. The morning of the presentation, you ate well, did some centering prayer and even got a bit of exercise in. You give the presentation at 10:00 am, when everyone is alert and engaged.

Day two: You have a big presentation to give at work. You’ve been sick the week before so even though you know this material inside and out, you haven’t reviewed it recently. Your baby didn’t sleep last night, so neither did you. You finally got some rest between 5-7 a.m., before waking up at 7:30, slamming some coffee to get through the morning and barely stay awake long enough to drive to work. You’re presenting at 1:00, right as you’re crashing and so is everyone else.

Clearly, these two presentations are not going to be the same.

Now, imagine you’re nine or ten months into a pandemic. In some ways, you’ve adjusted. You don’t miss the commute to work and you like that you can take a break mid-day to get a quick workout in. In other ways, the stress builds. Your kids’ school schedules are unpredictable. One day they’re online only, the next, they’re hybrid. You have no idea how to plan for school next week, or vacation in June, or a business trip in September. Your friend has covid so you’re worried about them and wishing you could support them better. Not to mention that it’s grocery day and you need food but you don’t want to be out and around because you saw family during your holidays and are trying to self-isolate for fourteen days. The sheer amount of information you’re filtering has increased exponentially.

Your best is not the same as it was last year.

And this is true for kids as well.

One of the things I see in this pandemic is that school pressure for kids hasn’t let up much. Individually, teachers are trying to be supportive. I have so much admiration for how they’re doing all of this. Still, the well-intentioned goals to “keep learning on track” have, to a certain extent, tied people’s hands.

What that means for adults is that we have to remind kids that their best is not the same as it was before. And that’s ok—because their best will be better soon.

More importantly, it’s ok because no matter how good their best is, their real worth isn’t measured in grades, or activities, or capacity to cope in the unimaginable. Their real worth is measured in the fact that they are a child of God. That’s it.

As people who love kids, this is a fantastic opportunity to show them we really mean it when we say our love is unconditional. Whatever they’re failing (or think they’re failing), during this time, doesn’t define them.

And whatever you’re failing, (or think you’re failing) doesn’t define you either. 

So make it a habit to tell yourself and those you love, “your best changes.” Or, “do the best you can today.” A few simple words make a big difference.