Tips for Encouraging Success and Responsibility
There are a lot of things worth teaching a child, regardless of how you educate. We can all agree on the 3 R’s even if we differ on methodology. But what about beyond that? Are there things beyond the “curriculum” that are as important for all children to learn? The answer to that question is almost always a resounding, “Yes,” followed by a lively debate on what those things are.
Distilled into a purer form, I think most parents and educators would agree that we want our children to grow up to be responsible and successful in their chosen paths. What does “responsible and successful” mean? Well, that could be debated too, but for a working definition I’m going to suggest the following:
- Financially independent
- Givers, not takers
- Good managers of time and other resources
- Problem solvers
- People who take initiative
- Team players
- Positive contributors to society
I have little emotional investment in what my kids choose to do for their careers. I want them to be happy. I want them to be successful. I want them to be responsible, for themselves and others. My kids’ lives and their choices are not about me, they’re about them. It’s simply my job to give them the best start I can and to equip them the best way I know how to be responsible and successful in whatever they choose to pursue. But how do we do that, as parents?
There are a million parenting books written to this end. You can wade through psychobabble hip deep for days and emerge with an arsenal of ideas that may or may not work, or a heaping bucketful of guilt over how you’re failing, depending on where you’re at in your journey. I’m not an expert, I’m just a mom. I was raised by exceptional parents who got this “responsibility and success” thing perfect. I don’t know everything there is to know about it, but based on my observations and experience, here are three things that we could be doing for our kids that would move them forward by leaps and bounds in this area:
Stop Doing Things For Them
Your kids will never take responsibility for the things that YOU continue to take responsibility for on their behalf. Why would they? Would you mow your own grass if you knew that if you let it grow long enough the neighbourhood association would come around and mow it for you? Of course not!
We talk about self-esteem building a lot in parenting circles, but you know what builds real self-esteem? The knowledge that you can do useful things and be justly proud of yourself. Bragging to your friend (just loudly enough for your child to overhear) about how capable your son is in taking over a night of the week to cook and how he cleans the kitchen up as well as you do will go miles further than the contrived, “You’re great, because YOU’RE GREAT!” type rah-rah that masquerades as “self-esteem” building.
If you want your kids to be responsible, hand them their lives. Once they are big enough to do something for themselves, don’t do it for them ever again, except in extenuating circumstances. Capability is built through effort, through struggle, through mastery and through the confidence that comes with knowing we can do hard things.
My Dad built my kids a boat the summer that my oldest was seven. The boat, beautiful and freshly painted, white and marine blue, was waiting in the side yard of the house when we arrived; a good 500 yards from the water. Beside it were a pile of long thin logs. Of course the children were dying to row their new boat and Grampsy immediately granted their wish, “But you’ll have to move it down to the water first!” And then he went inside and made coffee. The kids pushed on the boat. They tried to lift it. They couldn’t. It was beyond them. Gramps reappeared with his coffee and pointed out the logs and began their history lesson on how the Egyptians moved their long boats down to the edge of the Nile using logs as rollers, and how when you placed several under a boat you could roll it along quite nicely, moving the back one to the front, like so. He helped get them started and encouraged them as they rolled the boat, pushing alongside them when they got tired. It took about an hour, but they got the boat down to the dock. “Gramps,” my five year old said, “Next time could you just build the boat by the dock?” Gramps laughed, but the lesson was learned.
Kids are capable and they will be successful if we give them the tools and get out of their way. Stop doing stuff for them.
Let Them Live In The Real World
Newsflash: A school classroom and the contrived “kid culture” is not the real world. The real world involves people of all ages and abilities, languages, and lifestyles. Learning doesn’t happen between bells and it’s an exercise in cooperation, not a contest for a letter grade.
I’m not anti-school (although my kids have never attended) but I am anti- the idea that school is proper socialization for a growing person. It might be one aspect of their social development, but it’s inadequate if that’s their mainstay.
One of the biggest disservices we do our children, in my opinion, is in relegating them to kid-culture or teen-culture and then dumbing everything down for them. Instead, I’m an advocate for including kids in real-world culture: Don’t hide stuff from them, don’t sugar coat it, don’t keep them from participating productively because they happen to be under 18, don’t send the message that they are somehow “persons in waiting” because they’re kids. Let them live, work, play, contribute, and think with the Big Dogs and you’ll quickly find some very responsible and successful, not to mention resourceful and intelligent, kids under your roof.
Here’s the second newsflash under the heading “Let Them Live In The Real World”: The Real World... does not revolve around your kid. Your kid is a welcome member of your family and of society and of the international association of human beings who share this planet, but there is nothing inherently special or better or more important about him than there is about me, or you, or the child starving in Africa. Sound harsh? It’s true.
As parents we do our kids a huge disservice by allowing them, heck, encouraging, the belief, that they are in some way special and deserve special consideration. Do I sound like a tyrant to you? Not so. I’m not saying your kids thoughts, feelings, and rights are not important; I’m saying they are not MORE important than everyone else’s. Your child’s right to play on the slide is not somehow more than my kid’s. Your child’s emotional preference at the moment does not supersede mine. A child is not more important than his mother, or the child next door, or the people sitting around you on an airplane and the best thing you can do for your kid is to make that abundantly clear as early as possible. As adults, do we choose to give up our rights sometimes and make concessions? Of course we do. But, to the degree that your child is capable of understanding that, she should be expected to do the same. Other people matter. Because other people matter, we take responsibility for ourselves; we curb our desires at the moment for the benefit of the whole - this is what living in a family, in a society, is all about. The current parenting trend of not teaching that fact is utter nonsense. It ill prepares our children for the real world if we allow them to grow up thinking they matter more than they do.
Expect The Best
From the moment I became pregnant with my daughter, 17 years ago, the dire predictions and warnings from “seasoned veterans” began: “Say goodbye to your sleep, you’ll never eat a hot meal again, just wait until she’s two, five, ten, fifteen... just wait until she’s in teenage rebellion, oh the hormones!” It’s enough to make a new mother shake in her boots. Yes, parenthood is hard, there are sleepless nights and tantrums, vomiting, and all sorts of things that weren’t advertised on the glossy Gerber brochure that made you think having kids might be fun. But why would we expect the worst?
Have you heard of the Pygmalion Effect? Basically, it states that you get what you expect. It’s well documented. Guess what you get from the toddler years if you expect it to be one long parade of tantrums? Guess what you get from teens if you expect irresponsibility and rebellion.
I’ve spent a lot of time studying families that I found to be good examples of raising successful, responsible young adults. You know what I found, across the board? The parents expected the best. When they got less than the best, they communicated genuine surprise and immediately helped the child to succeed by reteaching or restructuring for success. They didn’t seek to control, instead they sought to equip and empower. Kids who are well convinced that their level of freedom is directly tied to the level of responsibility they can handle will quickly fill their cart with as much as they can carry and be off on adventures. And they will succeed.
My Dad said two things that mattered over the long haul of our parenting, in this regard, and they have borne themselves out with our teenagers:
You’re raising adults, not kids - treat them as much like adults as they can stand.
And, being an adult means paying for your own stuff.
Expect the best. Expect your kids to take responsibility and succeed. Incentivize it. Stop doing stuff for them. Toss them into the real world and expect them to swim and swim hard. Who cares what other people think or what it looks like from the outside. We’re raising adults here, responsible, successful adults, and the sooner the better!
Jenn Miller is the Uncommon Childhood Editor for Wandering Educators.
She was raised in log cabins on the shores of lakes and in the back of a
van across continents. She's the lucky child of nomadic parents and has
grown into a gypsy mama herself. She is a teacher by trade,
homeschooling mother of four, and a freelance writer for the alternative education
and travel markets, having spent over ten years as an educational
consultant and curriculum designer. She does a lot of things, but her
real passion is found in helping people live their dreams. She and her
family are in their fifth year of full-time travel that has taken them
across four continents by virtually every means possible, from bicycles
to ocean ferries. They're currently exploring Southeast Asia with
backpacks - you can follow along at Edventure Project.
Her one great desire for her children, and all people, is for them to
develop vision and create lives built out of big dreams. She's a
believer in hard work, hard play and giving back to the world through
pursuing our passions.
All photos courtesy and copyright Jenn Miller