The Measure of Our Success: Do I Measure Up?

I very recently came across Marian Wright Edelman’s book, The Measure of Our Success, while reorganizing my bookshelves at home. I had forgotten this treasure that I had read some years ago. When I found it, I sat down and re-read it on the spot. It is a short book, just shy of 100 pages. It so inspired me (again), that I thought I’d discuss it here. I encourage you to read it yourself, though, the messages are timeless and even more relevant now.

Marian Wright Edelman has spent her life advocating for children. The mother of three, Wright-Edelman is an inspiration as a woman who has achieved it all. Though she does not view herself as a Superwoman and strongly disagrees with Superwomanhood as a goal, (“Superwoman simply died of exhaustion.”), Edelman has an impressive list of accomplishments. She, a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. She founded the Children’s Defense Fund, which under her leadership has become “the most powerful national force for children in this country”, providing a voice for American children, who are the most victimized and least represented group in America.

The Measure of Our Success is a love letter from a mother to her sons. It is the most powerful kind of love letter because in it Wright Edelman strives to pass on the many lessons, hard earned by her and generations of kinfolk before her. She sets forth the perfect affirming words of unconditional love and empowerment, like when she reminds parents that we must tell our children how valuable they are and why. She tells her sons: “Affirm who you are inside regardless of the world’s judgments: God’s and my very precious children who are loved unconditionally, not for what you do, look like, or own, but simply because you are a gift of a loving God… It is important for us overly-perfectionist parents to make clear that you are far more than your SATs, good grades, and trophies. However desireable these achievements are and however proud we are of them, they have no bearing on your intrinsic value or on our love for and acceptance of you as a person.”

Then Wright-Edelman offers her children (and ours) “25 Lessons For Life” that are profoundly insightful and right on the money for our Black children (and ALL people, for that matter). Under each lesson heading, she provides the most wonderful kernels of truth, each one a gem. Below are her lessons and just a few of her gems:

LESSON 1: “There is no free lunch. Don’t feel entitled to anything you don’t sweat and struggle for.” Wright Edelman sends a call to parents. Its not enough to say this to your children, you have to live it. Your children will not learn to be industrious, do their homework, pay attention to detail, or to be reliable, unless you model that behavior yourself.

LESSON 2: “Set Goals and work quietly and systematically toward them.” Here is the gem, she says: “You can achieve much in life if you don’t mind doing the work and giving others the credit. You know what you do and the Lord knows what you do and that’s all that matters.”

LESSON 3: “Assign Yourself.” Don’t wait for somebody to tell you what needs to be done. Figure it out yourself and do it. Her gem: “Hard work, iniative, and persistence are still the nonmagic carpets to success.”

LESSON 4: “Never work just for money or for power. They won’t save your soul or build a decent family, or help you sleep at night.”

LESSON 5: “Don’t be afraid of taking risks or of being criticized.” The gem: “An anonymous sage said, ‘If you don’t want to be criticized don’t say anything, do anything, or be anything.”

LESSON 6: “Take parenting and family life seriously and insist that those you work for and represent you do.” Her gem: “Our leaders mouth family values they do not practice. As a result, our children lag behind the children of other nations on key child indicators like infant mortality, poverty, and family supports.”

LESSON 7: “Remember that your wife is not your mother or your maid, but your partner and friend.” Her gem: This is where she says, “Superwoman simply died of exhaustion.” Teach your kids that relationships and marriage are a partnership in need of good communication.

LESSON 8: “Forming families is serious business.” Children are expensive–emotionally, personally and FINANCIALLY!! You don’t need to enter into parenthood early or carelessly. Be responsible.

LESSON 9: “Be Honest.” The gem: “Be moral examples for your children. If you cut corners, your children will too. If you lie, they will too. If you spend all of your money on yourselves…if [you] snicker at racial and gender jokes, another generation will pass on the poison adults still have not had the courage to snuff out.”

LESSON 10: “Remember and help America remember that the fellowship of human beings is more important that the fellowship of race and class and gender in a democratic society.” On the heals of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, we are reminded that a person’s race is still an indicator for how he or she is perceived and treated in this country. The beginning of change needs to take place individually, internally first. Be a part of that change.

LESSON 11: “Sell the shadow for the substance.” The gem: “There’s nothing wrong with a BMW or nice clothes. But BMW is not an advanced degree and a designer coat or jacket is not a life goal or worth a life….Don’t confuse style with meaning.”

LESSON 12: “Never give up”. Her gem: “an old proverb reminds: ‘When you get to your wit’s end, remember that God lives there.'”

LESSON13: “Be confident that you can make a difference.” Clearly, public service is something that Wright Edelman has instilled in her children. Her gem:” Try to take each day and each task as they come, breaking them down into manageable pieces for action while struggling to see the whole.” Great advice for any endeavor.

LESSON 14: “Don’t ever stop learning and improving your mind.” She admonishes us to stretch ourselves and remember that all is possible with faith and hard work.

LESSON 15: “Don’t be afraid of hard work or of teaching your children to work.” Her gem: “Work is dignity and caring and the foundation for a life with meaning.” In our culture, where the focus of so many of our youth is “getting” rather than “earning”, we parents must somehow get back to fundamental notions of work ethic.

LESSON 16: “Slow down and live.” Her gem: Quoting St. Francis de Sales analogy about the effectiveness of gently flowing rivers and gently falling rain versus the destructiveness of torrents and great floods, Wright Edelman reminds us that “a job done too …hurriedly is never well done.”

LESSON 17: “Choose your friends carefully.” Her gem:” You are the person you must compete with and be accountable for.” Be yourself.

LESSON 18: “Be a can-do, will-try person.” Her gem: Anything can happen if you”dream it, have faith in it, and struggle for it– as long as it takes.”” I love this quote, especially the “as long as it takes” part. That is sometimes the caveat that stops the happening in its tracks. Staying power and perserverance are learned behavior that must be taught, again, mostly by example.

LESSON 19: “Try to live in the present.” Her gem: a Storm Jameson quote: “…The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable minute. Which is exactly what it is–a miracle and unrepeatable.”
LESSON 20: “Use your political and economic power for the community and others less fortunate.” There are many gems here, but the fundamental one is : “VOTE…”

LESSON 21: “Listen for the sound of the genuine within yourself and others.” Her gem: “There are so many noises and pulls and competing demands in our lives that many of us never find out who we are. Learn to be quiet enough to hear the sound of the genuine within yourself so that you can hear it in other people.”

LESSON 22:”You are in charge of your own attitude.” Her gem: “Don’t make excuses.” She points out that we all have our struggles, whether we are poor or rich. “It is where you are headed not where you are from that will determine where you end up.”

LESSON 23: “Remember you roots, your history, and the forebears’ shoulders on which you stand.” Her gem: She so strongly says don’t deprive your children of “the pride of heritage and sense of history of their own people and all of the people who make up the mosaic of this great nation.”

LESSON 24: “Be reliable. Be faithful. Finish what you start.” Ouch! Finish what you start! That hits home for me!

LESSON 25: “Always remember that you are never alone.” Isn’t this what every child should hear from his or her parents, often, “you are never alone” and “there is nothing you can ever say or do that can take away my or God’s love.”? This last quote reminds me of a fundamental truth. We parents must be for our children the embodiment of God’s unconditional love. This is how they learn of it, through us and our actions toward them. If this is true (that we as parents represent God’s love for our children), then parenting is our highest calling.

Marian Wright Edelman clearly understood this concept of unconditional love and parental responsibility, not only for her three sons, but for all of the children of this country. We are so fortunate to have her to learn from.
There is so much more to this tiny book. I strongly recommend that you find it and read it if you can.

(Originally posted October 10, 2005)

1 – I just found your site. I thought I would add it to my blog, Black Parent:

lhenry (Comment this)
Written by: Lashanda Henry at 2005/10/14 – 19:40:02
2 – I found this blog after looking around on I LOVE this. I’m a young working mother and wife. My husband and I strive to be good parents to our young daughter. Your blog entry is uplifting. I’m going to buy Marian Wright Edelman’s book as soon as I can. (Comment this)
Written by: ZZT at 2005/11/04 – 19:43:26
3 – I sit with tears as I search the internet for ways to cope. My son 17 years is in detention. This is his third arrest. I wonder whats gone wrong? He is the third of my children my second son.
My other children successful in university. My daughter a well known woman’s activist is known throughout Toronto for her struggles and rewards. MY second son chosen valedictorian of his high school and presently an honour student in University.
I cry out for help, I blame myself, I blame his father.
Arrested each time for theft of cars…………Three times. I wonder if his chances have run out. The costs enormous for myself now a single parent, the time lost.
I need help for myself and my son (Comment this)
Written by: shirley Davis at 2007/03/02 – 06:38:23
4 – Maybe you can express your feelings, just like you have shared here, with your son. (Comment this)
Written by: Anonymous at 2007/04/04 – 01:27:30 in reply to: 3
5 – Thank you so much for the post about Marian Wright Edelman- it changed my world



  1. Anonymous says:

    It is so wonderful to re-visit a treasured/well-loved book. Like a great visit with an old friend.

    It has been a while since I read this book but I do love the reminder to us as parents to nurture and care for our children holistically- and we in turn are reminded to do the same for ourselves. Willetta

  2. Claudia Jean Armstead says:

    I wish the book,The Measure of Success…, could be assigned reading for every parent (before they become a parent)We need her clear messages repeated often. We burden ourselves, and our children, with such confusion because we have difficulty in selecting a sustainable and timeless set of core values that becomes a driving force in daily decisions. Ms. Edelman’s book and her life could help us in that selection. Thanks, Gina. I am proud of you!

  3. Gina Carroll says:

    “We burden ourselves, and our children, with such confusion because we have difficulty in selecting a sustainable and timeless set of core values that becomes a driving force in daily decisions” This is so perfectly put, Jean, that I wish I’d said it. Thank you so much and Happy Mother’s Day!

  4. Thank you for your encouraging comment becoming a follower of my blog. I am very grateful to find your site. You share priceless knowledge for families, such as this post. Adding your blog to my site was without question. God Bless you.


  1. […] She is a wise and focused woman who, among many other accomplishments, has written several books–two of which are among my favorites, one about parenting, The Measure of Our Success and one about caring for the world’s children, The Sea is So Wide and My Boat is So Small. I wrote about the timeless lessons from the small but powerful The Measure of Our Success many years ago and it continues to be a popular post. (Read it HERE). […]

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