How to Help Kids Succeed for Real

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Recently I finished reading How to Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford, and one of the biggest take-aways I got from it is how ironically, sometimes pushing our kids to “succeed” can put them on the path to failure.  

The book is loaded with great parenting tidbits (and wake-up calls), but there were two areas in particular that resonated with me: fostering resilience and expanding the meaning of success.

Fostering Resilience

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Lythcott-Haims writes that our tendency to act as “lawnmower parents” who clear every obstacle out of our children’s paths deeply undermines their capacity to develop resilience.

To combat this impulse, she gives examples of strategies we can utilize to instead let our kids deal with those obstacles – while still providing support and even a safety net if and when they fail.

She emphasizes “baking off” (i.e., not micromanaging your kids) for the logical reason that,

“It’s only through actual experience that kids develop skills and learn to trust their judgments, make responsible choices, and face difficult situations.”

After all, how can our kids know they’re capable of accomplishing tasks and goals without testing the waters themselves? Plus, even if they don’t accomplish their goals (the first time around) failing – and getting back up – fosters confidence in their own abilities.

Of course, “backing off” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved parents. But Lythcott-Haims contends that our involvement should take the form of showing interest in what our children are interested in and offering unconditional love and support – especially during those inevitable times when our kids fail.

According to her, the reason these expressions of interest and support matter is because,

“…feeling loved helps us be more resilience.”

And although we may think that micromanaging our kids shows them how much we love them – because it demonstrates that we want to protect them and make certain they succeed – in a way, it’s kind of a selfish impulse. 
It springs from our need to protect ourselves from the discomfort that stems from worrying about our children; however, when we release our own fear and instead are willing to suffer alongside our kids, that’s a much healthier way to communicate that we love them, and have confidence they can survive life’s many bumps.

Expanding What Success Means

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One of the most prominent life “bumps” kids encounter these days is the college admissions process.

Lythcott-Haims theorizes that a lot of overparenting urge is driven by the fear that kids won’t get into “the best” college, which means he won’t get the “right job” which means he’ll be an utter and complete failure.

This fear frenzy is fed in part by the U.S. News and World Report’s annual best colleges issue, which makes it seem as if only the infinitesimal number of accepted applicants to the highest-ranked schools (as defined by U.S. News and World Report) will go on to succeed in life.

Lythcott-Haims points out that the real value of a college education comes from how good a fit the institution is with the individual who is attending it.

She lists several resources that offer better data points for predicting this point than the scarcity-based U.S. News and World Report rankings:

  • The Fiske Guide to Colleges offers a subjective analysis of each school based on its extensive contacts at hundreds of schools nationwide
  • Niche Magazine’s “College Prowler” is a result of surveys of over 300,000 college students, as well as objective data pulled from elsewhere
  • Colleges That Change Lives compiled by Loren Pope who wrote, Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right for You 
  • The Alumni Factor, a website (www.alumnifactor.com) which lists surveys of alumni from over 225 colleges and universities about life outcomes like: intellectual development, social and communication skills development, friendship development, preparation for career success, immediate job opportunities, willingness to recommend the college to a prospective student, average income of graduate households, average net worth of graduate households, and overall happiness of graduates

As an aside, there’s also the notion that a four-year college isn’t the right fit for everyone. I have friends without college degrees who are doing quite well financially, and emotionally, so there’s that.

When we define success as a subjective goal that differs with different individuals, we both widen the possibilities of achievements for our kids and make it more likely that they will own those triumphs because they fit them better and because they chose them.

Ultimately, I took to heart Lythcott-Haims’s point that we need to stop parenting out of fear because when we do so, we cripple our kids’ chance for success in the real world. 

When need to have more faith in our kids, and accept that although we can’t control what they do with their lives, we can control how we respond to their choices. 

Ideally, we’ll choose to give them the support – and space – that they need to grow into successful adults (each in his or her own individual way).

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