All parents want their children to succeed. To do well at school, get into a good college, have a great career. But sometimes we engage in behaviors that hinder more than help our kids achieve these goals.
If you’ve ever raced to school to drop off your child’s forgotten lunch or homework assignment, you may be guilty. The same applies if you’ve ever picked up a pencil and hastily finished off his few remaining math problems before bedtime. And what of those science and other school projects that in the end perhaps bear more of your stamp than his?
“Parents think they’re helping their kids get ahead by making sure they always succeed, by doing their homework for them, by basically micromanaging them. They don’t realize failure is essential for success,” says Jim Taylor, a performance psychology consultant and author of Positive Pushing: How To Raise a Successful and Happy Child. “Failure toughens kids up and makes them resilient. And having the ability to respond positively to failure is a skill that only comes with practice.”
The fact is, everyone fails. It’s actually a good thing for your kids to fail frequently. Not all the time, of course, and ideally not on really important matters—but experiencing failure in small, safe settings can be very educational. It teaches kids how to deal with the emotions of failure, such as disappointment. It provides lessons about what they did wrong so they can avoid repeating the same scenario. “Failure helps narrow down the path forward to success,” Taylor says.
To respond positively to failure, kids must own up to their mistakes. A huge body of research exists on what is known in the education field as “attribution theory.” A 2006 study in the British Journal of Special Education supports the idea that high achievers attribute success and failure to factors within their control. Lower achievers are more likely to blame a poor outcome on factors beyond their control. In other words, the kid who confesses to getting a bad grade because he didn’t study shows far greater promise of future success than the kid who gives an excuse like “the dog ate my homework.”
Lay the Groundwork
Determining the fine line between helping and hurting your child in school becomes easier once you’ve laid a firm foundation. Giving children chores around the house from an early age is key. Having them make their beds in the morning, bring their dishes to the sink, put their laundry in the hamper—these may seem small, but what you’re actually doing is developing a sense of responsibility that children will later transfer to more critical things.
“Chores are more important for your child’s academic success, in the long term, than homework,” says Charles Fay, a school psychologist, president of the Love and Logic Institute, and author of From Bad Grades to a Great Life! He’s not by any means advocating ignoring homework—rather, he’s saying parents sometimes place too much emphasis on it instead of on instilling good character traits.
Lead by Example
Do you come home after a long day at work and vent about your job? It’s vital for a child to see the most important adults in his life become animated about their own learning experiences or aspects of their job, Fay says. If a child overhears a parent saying in an excited tone things like “Guess what I read today?” or “Guess what I learned at work today?” he’ll be more inclined to stay motivated about his own schooling. Fay refers to this as “eavesdrop value-setting” because kids readily absorb things they think they’re not supposed to hear.
To prove his point, Fay tells the story of an underachieving student he once counseled whose parents were highly educated. Daily, all the boy heard was a string of complaints from his parents, prompting him to say, “My dad’s so miserable. He had to get a master’s degree to be this upset all the time. You know, count me out.” This was certainly not the message the parents wanted to convey.
Develop a Positive Relationship
Little failures in elementary school like turning a project in late or getting a so-so grade on a test aren’t going to scar kids. In fact, slip-ups along these lines will strengthen kids if parents can summon the right attitude and perspective, Taylor says. An appropriate emotional reaction counts most of all. Bluntly put, don’t freak out.
A far better solution would be to pull out the test or assignment and review it with your child. Instead of focusing on what he did wrong, concentrate on what he did right. Make him feel comfortable sharing his work with you. Zero in on the positive and ask him how he did it. There really are only three possible ways, according to Fay: Either he worked hard, he kept trying, or he’s been practicing. All three are things high achievers do when they’re successful. All three are positive statements (or “attributions”) about effort and perseverance. “Get him to verbalize one,” Fay says. “It doesn’t matter which one because what you really want this kid doing, over and over again, is verbalizing one of those three options in connection with success.”
Focus on Strengths
As a parent, it’s your job to help your children discover the things they’re naturally good at, even if they’re nonacademic pursuits. Yet once these are identified, parents will then often throw all their efforts behind subject matter kids are struggling with and neglect to pay any attention to their strengths. Imagine how you would feel if, during the course of your workday, the key people around you only focused on your weaknesses. You’d hardly feel motivated, and the same goes for kids.
Let’s say your son is mechanically inclined but has difficulty learning his spelling words. Or maybe your daughter loves reading but has trouble understanding math. You know you must get them to devote time to their least favored activities in order to improve. But you’ll make more headway in that regard by displaying an equal interest in the things they’re already good at. So ask about the latest gadget your son is tinkering with, or the novel your daughter is absorbed by. “Kids are much more receptive when you take this approach. It ups the odds of them being willing to risk trying something difficult,” Fay says.
A similar strategy to get kids to work on something they don’t want to do is to tie it to a greater goal, Taylor says. Just as high school sports teams require kids to maintain a certain grade-point average, you can ask the same of your elementary or middle schooler. “Tell him you support his decision to play soccer but stress that if you’re going to make that commitment to him, meaning time and money driving him places and buying the gear, then he has responsibilities, too. And one of them is to get good grades,” he says. In effect, you’ve created a scenario where your child will see it’s not OK to fail.
Fay points out that the price tag of failure goes up every day. Allow your child opportunities to fail when the stakes aren’t as high. Ideally, that’s when they’re young; but even high school is better than college, and college is better than at their first job. Hard work, being responsible, experiencing failure—these are values and skills all children need to learn in order to succeed.