Most parents want to see their children grow up to attend prestigious schools, get good grades, and make lots of money ― all of which is fine. However, according to American psychologist and author Madeline Levine, those goals represent just one aspect of what constitutes success in life, and parents often don’t do nearly enough to foster what she calls “authentic success.” In her new book, “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success”, Levine outlines a new definition of success and achievement, and in the book’s forward emphasizes that parents need to encourage kids to “know and appreciate themselves deeply; to approach the world with zest; to find work that is exciting and satisfying, friends and spouses who are loving and loyal; and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to society.” During a recent conversation with Dave Iverson at KQED, Levine outlined 7 useful tips to help your kids reach that type of success and achievement:
- Remember the basics. Important factors in parenting are reliability, consistency and stability…and remembering that it’s OK to allow your kids to to learn from their mistakes, without interfering.
- Build a good foundation. Receiving college acceptance letters from well-regarded schools and stressing that your kids get good grades, while certainly important, are less valuable in the long run than teaching them how to be resourceful and maintain a positive sense of well-being. And making sure they learn fundamental movement skills at an early age is a central building block in that well-being.
- Spend time with your kids. Don’t worry about deep conversations with your kids every day, just make certain to spend time with them. Dinner time, play time, down time, and family time together all aid in getting to know your child and being involved in his or her life. Spending time outdoors throwing a ball with your children, or going for a walk, are great ways for families to bond through exercise. And don’t worry if progress is slow going. Levine reminds parents: “Getting to know your child is a quiet, long process.”
- Help your child develop an internal definition of success. When it comes to learning, instead of equating a high grade with effort and intelligence and a low grade with a lack thereof, switch to questions like, ‘Did you learn anything new on the test?’ or ‘What was the test like for you?’ According to Levine, both parents and children need to shift from an external, performance-oriented version of success to an internal version that embraces “real curiosity about learning and how the child experiences things.” These same concepts apply to sports and activities as well. Greater enjoyment can result when a child is free to measure their growth, not in competition with others, but in terms of their own progress. Encourage your child “to go inside and evaluate for themselves. At the end of the day that’s what I think authentic [success] means,” says Levine.
- Let kids fail. Remember how your toddler fell when he or she was learning to walk? Letting kids fail is “one of the most critical things” parents can do, Levine reminds us. “That’s the model in life, for how kids master things. If we swooped in at the first stumble, a child wouldn’t learn how to walk. She walks because she fails over and over and over again with our continued encouragement and presence.” (Canadian-born journalist and New York Times contributing writer Paul Tough builds on this idea in his book, “How Children Succeed—Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character”. In an interview with the CBC, Tough argues that failure helps to develop character, and that character is as important as academics in helping children become successful adults.)
- Concentrate on your child’s strengths. It’s important to remember that most kids aren’t good at everything, nor will they be expected to excel at everything when they reach adulthood. “When you grow up you only have to be really, really good at one or two things,” Levine emphasizes. “This idea of being good at everything, straight A’s, building water treatment plants in the Sudan and being the captain of the lacrosse team is so unrealistic. We spend so much time with tutors or worrying about a kid who has difficulty in one field as opposed to concentrating on their strengths.” If your child shows increased aptitude and enjoyment playing softball, as opposed to soccer, for example, then by all means encourage him or her in that direction.
- Don’t drown your kids in praise. Believe it or not, you shouldn’t constantly tell your children that they are great. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, it’s actually more valuable to hold back praise. “We seem to be under the impression that you can graft self-esteem onto your children if you just tell them enough how special they are,” Levine says. “The reality is that self-esteem comes out of competence. How do you get confident about something? You get better at it.” When assisting your child with fundamental movement skills, for example, constructive criticism and encouragement are always invaluable, but praise should be reserved for when progress is achieved. Levine explains that telling children they’re good at something builds pressure and expectations and that the possibility of not meeting those expectations works against kids. “The risk for the child then becomes very great.”