As a parent and a professional, I was struck by a podcast of Think I listened to this week. Krys Boyd interviewed Dr. Madeline Levine, author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success. Dr. Levine is a psychologist with over 30 years of experience and co-founder of Challenge Success, a program at the Stanford School of Education that provides families and schools with tools to raise healthy, capable kids without undue stress and pressure. The topics raised in her book and discussed in the podcast are compelling, and I want to share them now in case you don’t have a chance to listen and while there’s still a little time to reflect before school starts.
“Does the focus on our children’s early achievements get in the way of the real work of childhood?” Krys Boyd opens the discussion with this provocative question. In today’s world, the unspoken expectation has been placed on kids that they need to be great at everything, says Dr. Levine. She is incredulous that silver and bronze medal winners at the Olympics are saddened and upset by what they consider their ‘sub-par’ performance. Being 2nd or 3rd in the entire world is not good enough?!? The intensive training and competitive spirit Olympic athletes practice is filtering down to middle and high school (and in some Dallas private schools, it’s going as far down as elementary school). It is not unusual in our area for 3rd or 4th graders to have private trainers or coaches, along with the coaching they get at their regular sports practices. Levine cites research that 3% of high school athletes will play in college while only .03% will make it to the Olympics or the pros. That’s something to consider when you’re driving your child to her select team soccer practice.
But it’s not just sports where kids feel compelled to be the best. For many families, an A is the only grade that is acceptable, Levine notes. It used to be that C was average; B was above average, and A was special. There were plenty of B and C students and that was fine. Those kids went to college, embarked on their careers, and have rewarding and enriching lives. In fact, ‘those kids’ refer to many of us (me included). Think back to your life growing up. Were you exceptional in all you undertook? I know for me the answer is a resounding NO.
In Dallas, as with other places in the country, the parental peer pressure to have high-achieving children at the best schools can be intense. I see it in my educational consulting practice when prospective clients ask me for my record of getting students into the top private schools. There is steep competition for these prestigious spots. When I’m asked such a question, I know I am not the right consultant for that family. My focus is on finding the school that is best for each child, so he or she will be in an environment where they feel comfortable enough to open up and take risks.
So back to Krys Boyd’s initial question. What is the real work of childhood? Levine believes that childhood is all about crafting your internal self. Kids need time to explore, reflect, and imagine their future selves. When parents are over-invested in their children and micro-manage their lives, it denies kids the opportunity to get to know themselves.
Levine says that parents have the mistaken idea that if they can get all the external things about their children just right (straight A’s, stellar SAT scores, team captain, etc.) that their children are ‘set’ for life. Unfortunately, though, being a successful, exceptional child does not predict success and happiness in adulthood. Instead, people who do well in life find something they love and become great at it, but the amount of time it takes to do this is highly variable.
The best thing parents can do, Levine suggests, is allow kids to explore their world with love and support, but without hovering…to let them grow up. Levine believes that one of the most important factors in raising happy, healthy kids is non-interference. Have faith in yourself, your child, the system, and trust that since it worked out for you, it can work out for your children.
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