ADHD, children, homeschooling

Determination Is Not the Key to Your Child’s Success

Every few months, a new post or video will emerge on social media and be mass-shared by homeschool moms across the country and the world –usually citing research (or just opinions) about the key to your child’s success.

They usually involve something like determination, grit, not giving up, or stick-to-itiveness.

All variations on the same theme.

There is more than one problem with this theory.

1. It is not true in the neurotypical world.

Even for those without ADHD, all you have to do is look around and see that sheer stubbornness –or what we call determination if we are being nice– is not the answer to all of the world’s problems.

And it’s surely not the key to success in any given situation.

I have often been told that if I wanted to, I could cure my autoimmune disease, that I am sick because I do not want or try to get better.

This is lunacy, but it is a common way to approach problems.

“Just try harder!” is a common theme in our culture –from conferences to motivational wall hangings, we rally around the idea that we can single-handedly conquer the whole world if we just try and never give up!

And, yet, I am usually the most stubborn and determined person in the room –I am definitely the most stubborn person I know.

My determination has neither healed me or made me not sick to begin with.

My stubbornness does keep me hoping when others might have given up on getting better or even committed suicide.

So, it is not useless.

But, it is not the answer to the illness.

It is not the key to my health success.

Many people think that sheer determination or grit is enough to guarantee them success.

This is perpetuated by famous people saying ridiculous things like “No one believed in me, but I was determined to succeed –and I did. Never give up on your dreams!”

And, then you contrast that with the people you see show up for TV talent-scout shows like American Idol.

You see people who are very self-assured on that show –I am not sure if I have ever seen people more determined to succeed than I have on that show.

In fact, I have seen people –who are actually way more stubborn than I am– try to get on to the show and fail.


Because they lack talent and ability.

That demonstrates to us that determination alone is not enough to get us from where we are to success.

Whatever success is –but we will discuss the nature of success later.

A wise friend brought this quote to my attention:

“Every corpse on Everest was once a very determined person.”

That’s kind of morbid to think about, but it is extremely true!

You could be the most determined, the most stubborn, and the most talented, and still have the weather shift suddenly and lose your life, never reaching your goal.

Sheer determination is not enough.

But, we don’t like to think that there are any factors that are out of our control: sorry for the reality check, but there are factors out of our control.

What if you want to fly to the moon without a spaceship and you are determined to do it?

I remember a kid in grade school who thought if he just tried hard enough he could fly –after all, we were regularly told that we could do anything if we just tried hard enough.

Stubbornness is not the only factor in the equation that leads to success.

It simply is not and to say it is, is to short change those who are genuinely trying.

2) It is not true in the neuroatypical world.

“Neuroatypical” means those who do not have typical brains, those of us with non-normal brains.

It includes ADHD, autism, and many other disorders.

I have ADHD and lead ADHD Facebook groups, so for my purposes, I am focusing on ADHD in this post.

Let us suppose that you have a child who was born without a leg.

The key to his success at walking is most definitely determination, right?

By sheer determination, he will turn into an amphibian and grow a new appendage, right?



Absolutely, a child cannot have success when the success is stolen away by something out of his control.

Just like the hiker on Everest may not have success because the weather is out of his control.

Just like the child without a leg, an ADHD child is missing components to his success because his brain has developed differently than normal people –something totally out of his control.

For some ADHD people, that difference in how their brain develops makes it easier for them to be successful.

But in most ADHD people, those differences –while it may appear less significant compared to the missing leg– are significant and impactful.

Nearly every ADHD person I know who has attended a traditional school has gotten a report card that read something like this:

“Smart kid; would be successful if he would just tried harder.”

“Try harder” statements induce sinking-into-despair feelings for all ADHD people.

It makes the pit of my stomach feel hollow, and depression starts to creep in.

If only it were that simple.

If only “be the most stubborn person there” would guarantee success.

But it doesn’t.

What makes the child born without a leg able to run?

A prosthetic.

A crutch, if you will.

An accommodation.

More than likely, every ADHD person who has ever been successful had some kind of accommodation.

Often, someone saw the genius in a gifted young person and was willing to put up with their unkempt nature, disorderly spaces, and scatterbrained ideas in order to see the results that emerge from the beautiful mind that laid beneath the chaos.

Einstein was such –a beautiful mind beneath the chaos.

Don’t believe me?

Google “Einstein’s desk the day he died” and see if that doesn’t scream chaos to you.

Accommodation can come in many forms: medication, coping skills, understanding family, and friends –just to name a few.

But “try harder” does not work.

“‘Work harder and you can get better at it’ doesn’t always work for people with neurological* disorders.” –Amythest Schaber from Ask an Autistic

*ADHD is recognized as a neurological disorder.

If you expect your child to succeed by sheer determination, they will turn on you just as if you had asked a child who has no leg to run.

That’s cruel.

We shouldn’t do that to anyone, let alone our children with developmental and neurological conditions.

If you do, your child is justified in his anger toward you just as he would be if he was asked to use a missing limb.

So what is the key to success?

I don’t know.

Talent, support, and inclination all play into it.

For instance, I will never be a mathematician –no matter how determined I am. I have dyscalculia (a math-based learning disability), and numbers are like Greek to me —even the ones that aren’t actually written in Greek.

I don’t care what anyone else says: I think Satan put letters in math to mock me.

I can improve my math to some extent, but I cannot change that I am handicapped by the limits of my brain’s capacity to learn in this area.

I am not inclined toward math, but I am very inclined toward writing and art.

It is likely that I will find greater success in things I am inclined toward, but that’s not guaranteed –remember our American Idol example?

All those people who are turned away in the first few episodes think they are inclined toward music.

But, our ears tell us differently.

When it comes to special needs kids especially, I think we are missing the point if we focus on success.

Success is this arbitrary, out-there-somewhere idea that means something different to each person and is never quite obtained.

I think we need to focus on improvement.

Instead of saying “Are they as good or better than everyone else out there?” we should be asking “Are they better than they were before?”

Instead of pitting children with neurological disorders against neurotypical children –which isn’t a fair comparison –we should ask ourselves if they have improved from where they were.

Improvement should be enough success for us.

You ruin the joy of improvement and discovery if you measure yourself against other people’s stride or against your view of perfection.

I don’t want my child with dysgraphia to write better than my friend’s daughter who sells art with beautiful calligraphy.

To place that expectation out there would be unreasonable.

I just want him to improve from where he was 6 months ago.

Holding out a standard that is unobtainable in front of a child and defining it as success, expecting them to achieve it, and making your approval of the child based on the acquisition of that goal is psychologically and emotionally damaging.

Don’t do that to your ADHD kids.

Don’t tell them that all they need to do is try harder.

Trying harder won’t help.

Instead, find ways to support and accommodate them, and you may find that they surpass even your expectations.

For more information about how to accommodate ADHD children, please see this post which discusses medication pros and cons and other options to help ADHD.

For more information about enjoying the journey of learning without getting caught up in the goals, see this post.

For a video that explains why ADHD people have brains that are developing differently and what to do about it, see this post.


Sarah Forbes


3 thoughts on “Determination Is Not the Key to Your Child’s Success”

  1. I don’t have ADHD, but I do appreciate your post and found it to be important. Very well-written, too. And I do think it’s very important to recognize improvement rather than one’s relative rank in comparison to people who are under different circumstances and don’t experience things the same way. For instance, while all of my other classmates got through their presentations just fine, I was proud just to quietly stutter my way through mine. That was improvement for me and it made me happy. (I have anxiety.) Thank you for this post. –Julia

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