By: Kent Pekel, Ed.D., President and CEO

Holidays can be tricky things for educators, youth program staff, and other adults who work with young people. In the school district where I used to be an administrator and where I am still a parent, the principal of an elementary school recently ignited a firestorm of community protest when he announced that the school would no longer celebrate Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. “I have come to the difficult decision to discontinue the celebration of the dominant holidays,“ the principal explained in a letter to his students’ families, “until we can come to a better understanding of how the dominant view will suppress someone else’s view.”

The merits of that principal’s decision may become a blog post for another day, but the controversy got me thinking about the official holidays that will be left for his school to celebrate after the big four are eliminated. As it happens, one of those safe holidays is almost upon us, as Presidents’ Day will take place on Monday, February 15.

In my experience, Presidents’ Day is a pretty perfunctory holiday for many schools and programs, but I think that the day can promote some useful dialog and reflection if we take advantage of it. Toward that end, I thought I would share my favorite quote by a U.S. President about how children succeed. It was said, not surprisingly, by Abraham Lincoln.

In 1855, Lincoln was a rising figure on the American political scene. The life story that would eventually culminate in his historic presidency was becoming increasingly well known: beginning with his childhood in a log cabin and extending into adulthood, when he used his largely self-taught legal skills to fight for causes and win cases that eventually caused people to conclude he was the right person to lead the United States through the end of slavery and the Civil War.

That year a young law student wrote to Lincoln to ask how he could prepare to live a similarly admirable life. The letter Lincoln wrote in response included advice on an array of topics, but one sentence in particular stands out:

“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.”

It is helpful to pull that sentence apart to understand the power of Lincoln’s advice. First, he urges the young man to think about his own thinking (“bear in mind…your own resolution”). Second, while Lincoln unambiguously urges the young man to strive for success in life, he leaves it to the young man to define the meaning of success. And third, in saying that the resolution to succeed is more important than “any other one thing,” Lincoln acknowledges that many other things beyond the self (such as poverty, discrimination, and inadequate education) can overcome even the strongest will to succeed.

Lincoln’s advice to the law student provides us with three principles that can guide our work with young people today. First, we need to help them learn to think about their own thinking so that they can navigate life with understanding and intentionality. We can’t expect young people to control impulses, identify what they don’t understand, and use other metacognitive techniques unless we teach them to young people. The good news is that when those techniques are taught and used, young people are much more likely to complete tasks and achieve their goals.

The second principle that we can draw from Lincoln’s advice is that while we should unambiguously urge young people to aim for success in life, we must allow and encourage them to define success in ways that are meaningful and motivating to them. Before I joined Search Institute three years ago, I spent about a decade working to promote college readiness in preK-12 schools. While I am proud of that work and believe it benefited many students, I also learned that for some young people, getting into college is not a very motivating objective. In retrospect, I wish we had more clearly and carefully framed college as one but not the only pathway to becoming a thriving and contributing adult.

The third principle that Lincoln’s letter suggests is this: personal passion and perseverance are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Although the resolution to succeed may be more important than “any other one thing,” it is not the only thing. Structural and cultural barriers matter too, and removing them must be part of our strategy for youth success. That might seem like an obvious point, but while many schools and programs I visit these days are working hard to strengthen young people’s grit and growth mindset, far fewer are also focused on meeting young people’s needs for food, school supplies, health care, counseling, and positive role models. Fortunately, great organizations such as Communities in Schools are helping to balance the equation, combining efforts to build internal character strengths with efforts to remove the external barriers to student success.

This Presidents’ Day, you might share the sentence from Abraham Lincoln’s letter with the young people in your program or school. What do they think Lincoln is talking about, and how might it apply to the way they live their lives?

Just some food for thought about a holiday that hopefully won’t go to waste this year.

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