We hear SO MUCH (too much) in our society today about how to succeed, how to help our children succeed – our business- our family -our bodies – our schools- our teams – our country, what qualities and practices lead to success, what mistakes and mis-steps can keep us from it…My mind has been on this topic in the last week as I’ve been reading Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. And last week, I shared a “So What Do We DO About It?” hand-out for an audience of parents who were seeing the powerful (and quite depressing) Mommy-made documentary, “Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture” (hand-out available for you below). For me, it all raises the important question that I think we as parents and as a culture should seriously consider so that we can make the intentional choices that we really want to deep down for our children, “What is Success?” What does it mean for you as a parent? Does it mean to make a lot of money? Does it mean having the “American Dream” – the white picket fence, the perfect marriage, 2 “good” kids, and a dog? (I actually had a white picket fence growing up here in East Dallas.) Is that dream about material wealth or does it mean just to struggle a little less, worry a little less, spend a little less time on the daily grind and more time on the simple pleasures of daily living? What do we value most? What do we believe is possible? What do you really want for your child? What is it worth to you?
None of us are immune to the pressures that we as parents feel to push our kids to be the best, but we are in control of the way we choose to respond to this pressure. The dangers of giving in to too much of the hype often come at the risk of losing out on some of the “good stuff” or even causing damage to our children, to our families, and sometimes others around us (those that we selfishly push aside in order to get our kids to the front of the line). Warner’s book calls this “Win-or-Take-All” parenting, a frenetic race to the top on behalf of our kids, like it or not…In the book, one mother says, “We want only the best for our kids – but unfortunately, the definition of ‘the best’ for our kid is interpreted pretty narrowly by society, and with limited emphasis on the individual.” The author says that “The anxious push to be and create winners poisons our family lives.” Do you feel this push? Do you feel this pressure? How is it manifesting? How do you and your children handle it as individuals and as a family?
I recently heard an interview with psychologist/ consultant/ educator Madeline Levine, who has a new book called Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success. And it brought up a few key points that are worth repeating as we struggle to resist some of these cultural pressures (from the pressure to buy the right stimulating toys for our babies, to enroll our tots in the right kinds of “Mommy and me” classes and play-groups, to getting our kids into the “right” schools by proving their smarts, talents, community service, and all-around excellence (not just for colleges, but even pre-schools!) If you’re feeling convicted and wanting to make some changes, the author suggests starting with “baby” steps in your parenting and family. Here are some things to keep in mind, and to teach and model to your children, no matter what age they are:
- We can’t all be the best at everything. It is just mathematically impossible. Most of us are lucky if we are great at one or two things. Most of us are average on most things, and we will all struggle in some areas. It is ridiculous to think otherwise, and important to tell ourselves and our children this. People who do great in life find something that they love. Even President Obama got C’s, so a bad grade is not the end of the world. This weekend MJ saw an “A+” written on a drawing and asked me what it meant. So I explained to him very generally how students are graded on what they learn, how well they learn it, and how hard they work in different subjects. I explained that Mommy and Daddy worked very hard to make A’s in high school so that we could go to college, but that we didn’t do well in everything, and that it’s okay to get a B or a C sometimes. (I never would have thought to mention this unless I was already being intentional about protecting my family from the kind of pressures I saw eating away at the families in “Race to Nowhere”. (Like the middle school perfectionist girl who takes her life after receiving a poor grade in a math class.)
- Success is a process, not an immediate result. It is a “long and winding road”, not a direct path. The author says, “People think success looks like a straight line up, but it’s really a squiggly line.” Real success is marked with trial and error, small successes and failures along the way, diversions and stops to ask for directions, even occasional “restroom breaks” and “vacations”! Your job is to give your child a map (or GPS) and let them know they can call you on your cell for help or support anytime they need to. You get to be their “life’s Sirie” (if they let you), but ultimately, they are in the driver’s seat on this one. They get to decide where to park, and how long to stay in each lot. (Okay, enough of the driving analogy, especially considering that I NEVER want to let my kids behind a wheel in the first place!)
- Don’t judge your children, observe and notice them. Most kids want to please their parents. If they intuit that participating in a certain activity, doing well at a certain subject pleases their parents, then they will probably continue this in spite of their own feelings. We need to help them decide what they like – what pleases them. This will lead to authentic success for them. After all, their success is not about what pleases us. (See more on this technique and the research behind it in my post, Inverse Power of Praise.)
- It’s okay for kids NOT to have a passion for something. In fact, it is the norm (though some schools for young children want to see drive and passion in youngsters, that “spark to win”!) Don’t worry – You do NOT need to hire an emergency “life coach” to motivate them. (These are actually out there making big bucks helping kids as young as 5 to get their lives “on track”). The “passion” of a 6-yr-old should be LIFE: playing and running around outside. A child’s developmental “job” in elementary school is to do lots of different things so they can figure out what they do like.
- Give your child time to discover themselves. A teen’s job is to craft the internal person they are going to be. The author warns, “We’re so busy telling them what to do that all they get to craft is a performance-based persona, what other people expect of them. They are really lost when it comes to who they are internally.” This is a dangerous thing to be -lost and ungrounded- when you are sent off into the BIG world!
- Consider what messages you are sending to your children. Levine says she discovered tutors at some private schools charging $1000/ hour to help a high school kid with a class! What message does this send to your child? You’re good, but not good enough. You can do it, but not on your own – you need us. These messages that parents are sending can make kids feel worse about themselves, and this never leads to authentic success. What messages do you care about sending as a parent? The author reminds us that when some of us were growing up, report cards for kids used to be divided in half to assess “grades” on one side and “character” on the other, assigning equal importance to them. Character “skills” like getting along with others, cooperation, listening, attention, respecting the rights of others, hard work, sense of self, and more. But building these characteristics is no longer a regular part of most curricula.That sends a message in itself.The author argues that these are the messages that CEOs actually care about. These are the skills and values that lead to authentic success.
- Remember, there are OTHER skills our children should have the time to learn out of school, which are just as important. They are the skills that make up the real “stuff” of life and they must be learned and practiced, too! How to relax, how to take care of their own bodies and minds, how to chip in with the housework, how to accomplish tasks independently, how to enjoy family time, how to listen, how to care for others, how to be a good citizen of the community.
- Know the child in front of you. As with so many parenting conundrums, the answer comes back to this simple edict. Your child is not like your friend or neighbor’s child, they won’t excel at or enjoy the same things, they will respond differently to structure and pressure and deadlines and tasks. They will have a different tolerance for busy-ness and extra-curricular activities, for socializing and being alone. They will have different needs and comforts and stressors and challenges and hopes and dreams. Find out what makes your child tick.
- Consider your family’s schedule. Are there too many extra-curriculars for your children? The answer may be different for everyone, but you need to ensure enough time for : play, sleep, downtime, family time. And developing all those life “skills” listed above in number 3. If they are too busy, ask the child what they want to cut out. (see sleep guidelines for children)
- Want more tips on this topic?
- Down-load my hand-out, with a list of 10 simple things you can do to resist the pressures and protect your children, and let it start a conversation in your family...race to nowhere hand-out
- Listen to the interview with the author of “Parenting for Authentic Success”
- View my post on What to look for in a pre-school
- Check out the new organization called “Challenge Success”
“At Challenge Success, we believe that our society has become too focused on grades, test scores and performance, leaving little time and energy for our kids to become resilient, successful, meaningful contributors for the 21st century.”
- Read more tips for challenging success from their website, many of which echo my own, “Parenting Guidelines”.