To raise a successful child today, must parents act more like talent agents than personal guides? Lisa Levey asks if pushing our children to succeed could do more harm than good.
During the Olympics, we watched the incredible talent of young athletes from around the world strut their stuff. The cameras repeatedly panned to the eager parents, watching intently from the sidelines, no doubt riding a roller coaster of emotion. What parent watching hasn’t wondered: What do they know that I don’t? What is the special sauce for raising that kind of child—a successful one?
I contend that this thinking—endemic among modern-day educated, affluent parents—has led to a kind of parenting horse race that is making us all miserable. The pressure to get your child involved in every possible form of enrichment, so that they can be successful and get that competitive edge, is palpable in cities and towns across the country. Kids as young as 3 or 4 have already begun the slog with T-ball on Tuesday, violin on Thursday, and swimming on Saturday. All this is in preparation for the full onslaught during the elementary school years which continues unabated for many children straight through to high school graduation.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am all for hard work, dedication, and achievement. I greatly admire those who strive for their dreams and probably would be characterized as a striver by those who know me. And I think that exposing children to many activities while they are young, to discover what they enjoy and where their talents lie, is certainly a good thing. But the reality is a large majority of parents and children experience the full crush of activities as just plain too much—too much time, too much money, too much coordination, just plain too much. Where’s the common sense? Where’s the joy?
Our son played in an in-town soccer league in fourth grade and the coach was required to rank all the players on the team from top to bottom. Our son got amongst the highest rankings and the coach was surprised to hear that we weren’t planning on moving him to the cross-town league the following year. A friend in town, who was a soccer coach for the league, told my husband and me that the prevailing wisdom is a child still playing “in-town” by the time they are 9 or 10 couldn’t possibly have much talent. Talent dismissed before reaching double digits? Is it just me or is this madness? Our son did play another season in town but the following year there were so few kids that we succumbed and he joined a traveling team. Subsequently, Saturdays were spent navigating to find obscure fields in towns near and far. I continue to ponder: Is this necessary?
The word “success” as applied to children disturbs me. A quick Internet search on the definition of success focuses on achievement, prosperity, popularity. Now that is a certain aspect of success but certainly not my emphasis as a parent. To me the job of a parent is to help children discover their strengths and passions, to learn the value of hard work and, yes, accomplishment, to instill in them compassion and respect for others, and to figure out how they can be a contributing member of society. I’ve found that our modern focus on raising “successful” children seems to have transformed parents from guides or mentors to talent agents, continuously looking for the next angle to best position the child.
More disturbing, the focus on success gives the false impression that parenting is an input and output scenario, like creating a blueprint or programming a computer. The thinking seems to be that if you fine-tune all the details, the end product (your child) will be just as you had envisioned—successful and happy. If only it were that straightforward. And frankly it’s way to much pressure. In reality parents can mostly get it right and still their child may struggle mightily or they can make a whole lot of mistakes and their child’s greatest strengths may come from those learnings.
I suspect a better alternative than raising “successful children” is to bring down the stress—for ourselves as parents as well as for our kids—and instead focus on:
Giving kids an anchor – One of the greatest gifts parents can give their kids is a home environment that grounds them and makes them feel safe. Furthermore, in our overly connected world, giving kids a place to process all the stimuli of their busy, modern lives seems essential. At a conference I attended titled Current Issues in Youth Sports: Raising Children in a Competitive World, Dr. Stephen Durant of Massachusetts General Hospital suggested one of the most important things parents can do is to help kids identify their “go-to behaviors” when they are overwhelmed and facing adversity. He described activities which are restorative, things like painting or drawing, meditating, praying, or being out in nature. His advice surprised me quite frankly because Dr. Durant works with some of the best of the best, athletes at the top of their game, both elite child athletes as well as professionals.
Helping kids develop life skills – We get so focused on helping kids develop their talents that it is easy to forget that life skills will best serve our children over the long run. In her book Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky, President of The Families and Work Institute, crystallizes seven essential “life skills” such as critical thinking, seeing things from another’s point of view, self-directed learning and taking on challenges. Parents can teach their children these skills by sharing their values, their personal challenges and successes, and their own life lessons in the simple day-to-day exchanges at the dinner table or taking the dog for a walk.
Enjoying your own life – In the crush to give our kids every opportunity, we can easily forget that parents matter too. As part of a dual-career family, I know just how easy it is for the activity schedule to take over, but I also know that when I feel constantly pushed to the limit, I’m not a very good resource for anyone. Having parents safeguard some time for their relationship with each other—and for their own passions and interests—may be one of the best things we can do for our kids. Children want their parents to be happy. It provides them with a deep sense of security.
So instead of defining success as “maximizing your child’s potential,” how about redefining success as helping children learn to love learning, helping them be comfortable in their own skin, helping them get along with others, and helping them figure out how they want to make a contribution to their community and their world. Those are important tools for finding success, and isn’t the ultimate success defining it on their own terms anyway?
Note: This article originally appeared in Role/Reboot.