Lessons for Learning and Life: 10 Messages Parents (and Teachers) Can Teach Kids

03/02/2015 09:03 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

Mary Ryerse

Reflecting upon enduring lessons learned during my formative years, a primary source was former professor and college tennis coach Steve Wilkinson. I am not alone. Thousands of former students, athletes, and campers have credited Steve's clear, simple and profound teachings as being at the core of who they are today.

Steve brought with him not only the credibility of a PhD., too many tennis titles to count, a published book, inductee to several Hall of Fames, and more - but also a ready smile, a caring heart, and the ability to connect seemingly simple lessons learned on the court to life off the court.

This is much like the opportunity parents have each day to create an environment that transforms day-to-day activities into a training ground for life. Parents are in a unique position to help their children draw connections between what they are learning and doing (in school, activities, community service, family conversations, and more) with enduring life lessons.

After Steve recently passed away after 6 years of living with cancer, his daughters (Stephanie Wilkinson and Deborah Wilkinson Sundal) and colleagues (Neal Hagberg and Tommy Valentini), articulated many of Steve's lessons - and I've done my best to build upon them and draw connections between learning and life in practical ways.

10 Lessons for Learning and Life

1. Know your target. Whether aiming for a bullseye in archery, a service box in tennis, or a high note while singing, kids are used to the concept of a target. In school, when they know outcomes toward which they are working, both learning targets and personal long-term goals performance improve. Parents can help kids focus on simple targets like mastering a spelling list or more complex ones such as following a thesis statement or keeping life goals in mind.

2. Keep it simple. The more complex a repetitive motion, process or set of instructions is, the more room there is for error (Coach Steve was famous for simplifying tennis strokes to increase odds of success). Parents can help kids understand the big ideas, draw connections, be clear, and not over complicate things. Thinking can be deep without being complicated.

3. Be consistent. Easily one of the most important, but often overlooked hallmarks of good students is consistency. Regular study habits, attendance patterns, homework routines, and attitudes all contribute to positive patterns of behavior that will equip young people for their life responsibilities which lie ahead.

4. Give full effort. Steve once told his stressed-out daughter while she prepared for a test, "Better to receive a B for which you gave full effort than an A that took none." While his daughter was focusing on a grade she "needed to get" to be admitted to a certain school, this simple kitchen table conversation reminded his daughter to focus on what she could control (study habits, effort) rather than what she couldn't control (questions on the test, class curve). It made all the difference for her experience on that test and those to come. Of course, she still aimed for the outcome of an A, but focused her energy on the preparation effort rather than the performance pressure.

5. Use a common language: one of understanding, patience, love, and a huge smile.
Kids living in a diverse world may not always speak the same language - literally and figuratively - as their classmates, their teachers, or even family members. Some approaches transcend barriers. When we encourage students to greet classmates and teachers with a smile and a name, and presume positive intent, we improve their learning environment.

6. Lifting one person up could make everyone around you fly. Including yourself.
It is easy for students to see the competitive part of school. What if we also reinforced them helping others? There is a reason why certain videos go viral - such as the clip from the Coronado High School (El Paso) basketball game when a member of the opposing team passed the ball to a special needs student, electrifying a gym and inspiring many. That's the kind of environment Tennis and Life Camps Director Neal Hagberg and his staff create at the camp that was founded by Steve and attracts kids and adults each summer.

7. Never, never, never give up. Many are familiar with this Winston Churchill quote. What a powerful lesson that applies whether in a game, doing a homework assignment, or aiming to make good choices amidst an unfriendly middle school environment. This lesson/quote from Steve was transmitted thanks to a blank chalkboard (pictured, and appropriately weathered) and his daughter asking, "What's your favorite quote, Dad?" Do your kids/students know some of your favorite quotes?

8. Look at your abundance. Help students see and be thankful for the resources within them and around them. The list is infinite, but help them not to overlook their ability to learn, the teachers that can and will help them (especially if they ask!), and how their lives fit together as a whole. For another example of taking lessons off the court and into the classroom with a holistic perspective, read about Andie.

9. Make time for what's important. I asked Steve how he did it - coached, wrote, taught - and did all of it well. At the time, he was on hour five of a book signing and exhausted when he looked me in they eyes (the same eyes that are tearing up as I write this), and said "I've learned that you make time for what's important." This also helps with students - prioritize work but don't forget to take care of yourself and your family. Put first things first.

10. Live in a way that you'll want to do it all over again. Not because you need a "do-over," but because you feel so good about what you did. Professor and Coach Tommy Valentini recently invited Steve to speak to his class, and no surprise, the students were completely engaged. The best part - teachers, I hope you're reading - Steve, concluded, "It almost makes you want to start all over again." Those are words from a man who dedicated his life to service and appropriately titled his book, "Let Love Serve."

Underlying the capacity to deliver the above lessons is a foundational practice that applies especially to parents and teachers: seeing with "double vision." Simply stated, as parents, we can unleash potential when we simultaneously see our kids as they are now and as they can be (hence the double vision). As Tommy stated, Coach Steve chose to treat as who we were capable of becoming in order to empower us to be our best selves. At the same time, he loved us just as we were."

Now, that's a target I want to aim for as a parent.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. We would love to have your voice in the Smart Parents conversations. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email Bonnie Lathram with the subject "Smart Parents." For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning. For more stories, see:

Mary Ryerse is a Senior Project Manager at Getting Smart. Follow her on Twitter @maryryerse.