by Dr. Susan Sugerman | Contributor
We live in a fairly privileged, relatively low-stress time in history, at least in terms of our day-to-day lives as Americans. Though there are definite exceptions, many of us don’t spend a lot of time worrying whether our children will have enough to eat, access to schools, or will be drafted for military service in a war zone. We live in a time when children are expected to graduate from high school and college is seen as a necessary step for achieving any long-term success in life. As a result, much of childhood can seem like a race to college, filled with building a strong resume that increases the chances of being accepted to the “perfect” school.
Thus, the very nature of childhood—and parenting—has changed. Families have become product-oriented organizations whose primary output is the success-ready child. As poignantly demonstrated in the documentary Race to Nowhere, children are now raised to meet very narrow definitions of success. They measure their accomplishments in numbers—standardized test scores, GPA’s, numbers of division titles, batting averages and UIL ribbons, class rankings and college acceptances. This puts all measures of worth in a position to be compared with other “numbers.” We have created a society where kids become unnecessarily (and I would argue unhealthily) competitive with their peers.
In a world framed by bad, good, better and best, children who are just developing their competencies at communicating with others, learning how to learn, adjusting to their changing bodies and understanding themselves, have become a very stressed generation. We have lost the ability to tolerate variability in the progression of childhood. Yet, we know that child development is uneven, from person to person and even within the same child. A late bloomer may not develop the muscle strength to hit a home run until late in high school, long after the varsity roster has closed. A precocious musician may become pigeonholed as a future concert pianist long before discovering joy in playing electric guitar in a garage band. The former is at risk for self-esteem problems after losing a spot on the team. The latter is at risk for burnout and resentment from not getting to explore other interests. Both likely spent hours pushing themselves to perform better (possibly at the expense of other experiences) and in the end may say, “For what?”
As parents of these children, we may be guilty of pushing them too hard. Or on the other hand, we may be accused of not supporting their dreams enough. There is no right answer here. But we can also blame society’s expectations. If your son doesn’t take the extra hitting lessons, if he doesn’t make the select team by 7th grade, his baseball career may be over. Only the “best” get to keep playing; at some point there are no rec teams for kids who just like to play ball, even if they aren’t great at it. If we allow the musician to take a break, there is the fear that others will surpass her, and then the scholarship opportunity goes to the more recent winner of the piano competition. If we push our kids to stay on the rat wheel, are we helping or hurting? And if we allow/force them to step off, then what? As a parent, I often feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, wanting to be brave enough not to go along with the system while fearing my child will miss out.
How can we help our kids? Start by redefining what you want for your child. Most adults I speak with say, “I just want my child to be happy.” But then I ask what that really means. Does it mean material wealth? Having access to the best opportunities? Most, when pressed, tell me it means being content with their lives, having meaningful relationships and having meaningful work. Certainly having one more award or one more division title isn’t required to be that kind of person.
Help your children find their own success in ways that are meaningful to them. Guide them towards achievement of “authentic success,” which according to my colleague, Ken Ginsburg, MD, national expert on raising resilient children and teens, includes “happiness, an ability to make and maintain meaningful relationships, generosity, compassion, a desire to contribute, creativity and innovation and, of course, resilience.” (From Letting Go with Love and Confidence)
We help children achieve authentic success by discouraging the idea that kids need to be good at everything to succeed; we help them understand that we all have areas where we shine and others in which we may struggle. We build on this ethic by celebrating kids’ academic accomplishments but also acknowledging that they are so much more than their report cards or test scores. We encourage them to understand the value of success when we allow them to fail; this is how they learn their limits and decide what they want to improve upon. For when kids are afraid to fail, they are often reluctant to try new things they may or may not be good at, possibly leading to a very restricted range of experiences over their lifetime.
We want them to enjoy all aspects of their lives, even the ones they may not be the best at. There’s still a college out there where he or she will thrive—I promise.
PARENTING TIPS FOR GENUINE SUCCESS
The parent-child relationship is one of the most essential elements for genuine success in today’s children. One of the greatest responsibilities parents have is to raise their children, so they can leave the nest and become autonomous and successful members of society.
Overparenting, or what I refer to as loving our children to a fault, is one of the greatest detriments to our children. Madeline Levine states, “Don’t do for your kids what they can already do; don’t do for your kids what they can almost do because that’s where they have those successful failures.” Being a loving, reliable, available and consistent parent are some of the most essential qualities for a strong, healthy parent-child connection.
Following are some helpful tips for raising successful, well-adjusted children in a competitive, high-pressure world:
• Take time to connect DAILY
• Allow them to make mistakes
• Have family meals
• Listen to their feelings and ideas
• Spend quality time together uninterrupted by technology
• Practice mindful stress reduction
• Allow opportunities for problem solving
• Teach emotional intelligence
• Foster resilience
• Focus on character not numbers
• Don’t compare your children to others
• Accept your children’s weaknesses as valuable to developing their sense of self
• Nurture creativity
Contribution made by Miki Johnston, LCSW. She is an affiliate of Girls to Women Health and Wellness.