Life’s non-negotiables

When Tim and I got married, we were grown-ups. When you get married at a more conventional age (like when both people are in the 20’s- early 30’s range), you learn grown-up things together. For us, well, let’s just say we weren’t conventional. And learning to navigate through decisions about vacations and housekeeping and money was a bit trickier. We both had grown-up opinions about lots of issues. And we were bothbridle-105062_1920 smart enough to know that compromise is key, but everybody has things that are not subject to negotiation. So we discussed and determined the “non-negotiables” list pretty early on.

For example, Tim’s family has a cabin north of Duluth. A yearly trip was non-negotiable. He had done it his whole life. Even though it was a 10-hour drive each way, and we could stay for only a week each summer, not going was not an option.

For me, Christmas Eve at our house with a traditional menu and whoever could make it was non-negotiable. I wasn’t willing to compromise when it came to that one special tradition. Thankfully, Tim had already grown to love and accept my family, so a “Burton” tradition wasn’t hard for him to adopt.

So we created our list. And I can honestly say it was really short. Really short. Some of those original non-negotiables have faded over time. The list has been modified by each of us and both of us and by life’s unexpected changes. But, it’s still a really short list.

But what about the “non-negotiable life skills” list? That handful of daily survival skills that our children should master, whether a future plumber, artist, cleaning lady, politician, or doctor. Some of those skills are academic, some social, some emotional.

  • We all need to read and manage our money.
  • We all need to share, tell the truth, and be kind.
  • And we all need to know how to handle the hurt and pain when someone else didn’t learn about sharing, truth and kindness.

But those academic ones, those grade-level reading and math skills. Wow, they are rigid. And arbitrary and entirely unfair.

And our kids pay the price.

Let’s say …

…it takes a crowbar to pry the 5th grader away from the piano. It also takes serious prodding and a lot more patience – and assistance – to get him to read the obligatory 20 minutes each night. Why does that elicit aggravation instead of joy?

…every single mechanical item in the house has been deconstructed and reconstructed at least twice. Does it really matter that division facts come a little slower? or that a chart helps get math homework done without tears?

…she has properly groomed and fed every horse and the tack on the walls is polished and neat. Is a perfect spelling test really a better measure of success?

We LOVE to quote Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” We read A Bad Case of Stripes and Giraffes Can’t Dance and The Story of Ferdinand and make a fuss about “always be just you.”

But in the real world of K-12, it’s not all that acceptable to just be yourself. Because in the real world of reading and math, the only self that matters is the one that measures up to the Non-Negotiable Standards.

Good golly, Miss Molly. What’s happened?

Somewhere along the way, we diminished the definition of success to meets or exceeds in reading and math. The scales have tipped completely over to academic achievement, and even that is narrowed to reading and math!

The balance is completely out of whack.

In an attempt to maintain political and intellectual world power status, we have lost sight of children as a real and whole people. Although we pay lip service to the arts, a child who thrives on visual creativity is chastised for doodling. Although every single one of us will need a mechanic at one time or another, I challenge you to find a handful of 5th-graders who can fix a broken bike chain. And God forbid that a 3rd grader doesn’t “get lost in a good book.”

Scientific discoveries and standing ovations are not the result of accurate answers to a computer-based comprehension test. And I would bet long money that a well-run horse farm does not start because a student excelled at Mad Math Minute. It began because a little girl paid attention to the care and training of the animals she loved. And she had a dream. And, most importantly, it was something that mattered to her.

Law firms, dance companies, and dairy farms will not succeed with simple love, hope, and the encouragement of a loving mom. Every successful venture requires number-crunchers and contract negotiators. Our schools and families and communities and government have a responsibility to give each student the best chance for a really fulfilling life. And most lives and livelihoods would suffer without the benefit of basic reading and math instruction.

But it takes more than two choices to create a feast. And it takes a whole lotta different people to create a world of fun, peace, and love.

I was a teacher. And the teachers I worked with are brilliant to the point of awesome, compassionate to the point of tears, and dedicated to the point of exhaustion. And the best ones pray that every single one of their students grow up to have a good life. Not a life of wealth or fame or ease. But a life of meaningful success, big or small.

A life well-lived that naturally flourishes because when we say “Be yourself,” we mean it.

A life that makes a difference because being yourself is non-negotiable.


  1. Too many children have lost contact with their talents because of our need for test-able non-negotiables. Of course education needs to have us try a bit of everything but to want us all to be experts in something we can hire out as adults, and that at the expense of our true gifts, seems downright cruel. Thanks for pointing that out and reminding us that we need to do something in addition to bemoaning the situation.


    1. It does seem cruel to tell a child to invest in their talent only to turn around to tell them that their talent has no value. The horse farm story is from my student teaching days in Wisconsin. She was brilliant in the barn, but couldn’t hold on to proper spelling to save her… what a mean and narrow measure of success. God help us all…xoxox


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