Many parents understand the importance of always being there for their kids. But what about the flip side–learning to let go gracefully so kids can develop their own identity?
Julie Lythcott-Haims, a mother of two, former dean at Stanford University, and author of How to Raise an Adult, explains that parents can set their kids up for success by knowing when to step aside.
By Wendy Chou
Make “pitching in” an early habit
Kids age 4-7 often enjoy doing things for themselves and feeling helpful. Give them simple opportunities to contribute around the house by putting away toys, making a snack, and choosing clothes they’ll wear in the morning. (A side benefit: these things fall off your to-do list!) Practicing completing tasks now will prepare them well for more challenging expectations later in life.
Allow time for critical thinking
When a child talks about a problem she’s having, a normal parenting reaction is to quickly offer a solution. This might be efficient in the short run, but in the long-term the child won’t ever have the chance to problem-solve for herself. Also, allow kids moments to discuss current events or even a book or movie you just shared together to help them find their own voice.
Discover the pursuits that matter to your kids
Teach kids that hard work, grit, and dedication really pay off when it comes to excelling at sports, music, and other activities. But make sure you’re enabling their dreams, not yours. According to Lythcott-Haims, it’s best to offer lots of choices in activities, then step back and let kids lead with their own passions. Ask your kids what they love to do, and be supportive of those interests and hobbies.
Making a mistake is a fundamental life experience that can lead to growth. Lythcott-Haims lists several milestones that we shouldn’t shield a child from, including “being blamed for something he didn’t do”, “coming in last at something”, and “regretting saying something she can’t take back”. These kinds of mistakes can be very painful, but also represent opportunities to become more resilient.
As parents we all wish for our children’s ultimate success. Over-managing children, however, is probably counter-productive to this goal. The best definition of successful parenting, according to Lythcott-Haims, is when our children develop into individuals who can look out for themselves, without us needing to hold their hands.
Reference: Julie Lythcott-Haims, How to Raise an Adult
Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life, said the former Mr. Jennifer Lopez. Most of us dream of being able to make a living doing something we love – being able to share our talents with the world. Having a passion in life is a gift, and it is important that children be allowed to explore their unique combination of interests and talents to find something they truly love doing. Whether or not it leads to great success, or even a career, the opportunity to find true joy in an activity or organization can be a source of lifelong happiness.
2. To learn how to lose, and to win.
Any activity done over years will involve competition — both with others and beating one’s own personal bests. Like it or not, competition is a fact of life, and understanding how to deal with competition builds character. Committed participation in an activity helps children see that defeat and rejection are not the end of the world, and makes losing a teachable moment. Long-term involvement in an activity also shows kids that success is not an endgame, but rather a jumping off point toward a new goal.
3. To find identity and community.
When a child finds a pursuit to which she wants to devote herself, it redefines how she presents herself to the world. As this sport, subject or art form becomes a deeper part of herself, she will likely want to explore it further by reading, doing research online, going to professional events or by starting her own groups. This identity will unite her with a new support system or “family” of people who share her interests, goals and possibly, worldview.
4. As an emotional refuge.
Bullying currently occupies a large and troubling space in our national dialogue about childhood and adolescence. With the current prevalence of bullying, it is crucial for kids to have a space, both physical and emotional, where they feel safe and valued. A place where a child comes to practice a favorite activity with friends with similar interests can be, quite literally, a life-saver.
5. To have a way to express herself.
People express different aspects of their personalities in different settings. Many famous people including Brad Pitt, and (really!) Lady Gaga are shy in person. A boy who is introverted and withdrawn may be a colorful and dramatic actor. A bookish and quiet girl might manifest an aggressive tenacity on the debate team. A high-schooler who could write a master’s thesis on being popular, might have a gift for working with small children or performing community service. An activity can bring out hidden facets of your child’s personality or skill set, and give him or her an outlet to shine!
6. To develop a strong work ethic.
There is no happiness, Henry Ford wrote, except in the realization that we have accomplished something. Successful people find joy in working toward a goal. In their chosen field they live by the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing well. They know that success doesn’t happen overnight, and they take responsibility for their own process. They learn from their mistakes. The disciplined, exacting approach that comes from mastering an art form, sport or subject is a foundation for achievement in any endeavor.
7. As a way to focus a frenetic mind and body.
Children with ADHD, who often have some combination of behavioral, social, emotional and academic issues can benefit immensely from a constructive way to organize their thoughts and direct their impulses. Kids activities such as martial arts, basketball or soccer, where there are specific skills and constant movement done under close direction, are an excellent way for a child to focus and develop his or her gross motor coordination. Studying a musical instrument or the fine arts can also develop muscle control and focus. Furthermore, if a child comes to excel at a given activity, her success will likely downplay the negative aspects of her condition in her own eyes and others.
8. To work closely with adult role models.
Parents know that they will not always be the sun, moon and stars to their children. Adolescence is often a time of disillusionment with other adults, as peers replace grown-ups as confidantes and idols. A child who is involved in a longtime activity has the opportunity to interact with nurturing adults who love and understand the activity in question just as much. An experienced and well-respected coach, or dance or music teacher can fill a void in a teen’s adult interactions, especially when it comes to providing valued life and career advice.
9. Because competence breeds confidence.
Self-esteem is fabulous. Kids need it. But it has to be based on something – getting a trophy just for showing up gives kids a dangerously wrong message and that in the end leaves them feeling empty and defeated. The “Tiger Mother,” Amy Chua was taken to task for her decrying of Western parents’ emphasis on self-esteem at all costs. But Ms. Chua understands that a child’s self-confidence comes from excelling at something. It comes from working diligently and not giving up and being better than one was before. It comes from knowing that s/he’s good at something.
10. To have a higher purpose.
Children are extremely susceptible to the message that material things and being friends with the right people bring happiness. Having something healthy, something bigger than themselves to aspire to – to occupy their whole beings – body, mind and soul is an important life principle.