Conversation Pieces_Johnson

How one parent’s tough love made a lasting impression

God calls us to open ourselves up to others and push ourselves to be our best, always.
Catholic Voices

When I was in eighth grade I was what I like to call a standard achiever. To me this meant doing the amount of work needed to get where I wanted to be and no more. In that first semester, I worked hard to get the grades and standardized test scores needed to assure I would be placed in (nearly) all honors courses in high school. The following semester, my grades tanked.

I had senioritis (when high schoolers stop putting in effort their senior year after being accepted into college), only as a middle schooler. To me there was nothing wrong with this. To my mother, however, my poor performance was not only frustrating but concerning.

After a parent-teacher conference during which my bad marks were discussed, my mom took me into her room and sat me down. Through exasperated tears she asked me why I was not living up to my potential and letting her and myself down.

Although I knew the answers to her questions, I was not quite ready to admit my shortcomings were due in no part to outside forces but came from myself and myself alone. So I chose to lie.


“I’m not sure why I’m not doing well,” I remember saying to some effect. “Maybe it’s just a hard semester,” I even offered.

My mother, however, was no fool and saw right through me. Even more frustrated, she suddenly shouted at me through her tears, “I just want you to have options!”

Her outburst caught me off guard. It was jarring enough to witness my normally calm, objective mother break down in tears in front of me. It was another thing to see her totally lose her cool at me over something that—in my mind—was trivial.

Instead of making more excuses, I decided to be quiet and listen.


She explained that she understood I was not doing my best work because at that time there was no need. She said she knew what I was capable of and that she wanted me to succeed, but that hard work did not always need to be saved for the big achievements in life. Hard work, she told me, was always necessary so that no opportunity would fall to the wayside.

“I want you to have options,” she said, “so that you never have to be held back by anything.”

I had not considered what I could miss by keeping my focus on only one goal. My mother’s tough love and wise words left a lasting impression.

Although my mother probably did not realize it at the time, she was calling me to do what God always calls us to do: Open ourselves up to others and push ourselves to be our best, always. When we allow ourselves to slack off in our relationships with our loved ones and with God, we lose opportunities to grow in faith and in spirit. It is our responsibility, not only to ourselves but also to our communities, to work hard and be our best selves, if only to have options.


This essay is part of a series of reflections on conversations that left an impact on the authors’ lives. You can read the rest of the essays here. The collection also appears in the January 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 1, pp. 28–33).