All parents want to do the best they can to guarantee their child a happy, healthy, successful adulthood. After all that is our #1 job, getting our beautiful babies successfully launched into the world.
And because this job is so big and daunting and often overwhelming (especially when you have a “quirky” kid) our culture often relies on myths and magical thinking to guide our decisions as we navigate our children’s first two decades.
These myths and expectations very often leave parents feeling that their children aren’t “keeping up,” or that their parenting is flawed. These myths lead to arbitrary comparisons, black and white fears of “success vs failure,” and chronic anxiety that if our kids don’t measure up the boogeyman of abject failure, living-in-the-van-by-the-river-future is what awaits them in a few years.
We hear parents worries loud and clear. And,yes, when your child has ADHD, autism or a learning disability, some worries are very real and must be addressed.
But we’d like to unburden all parents of the arbitrary worry, the unconscious keeping-up-with-the-Joneses pressure that drains all the fun out of being a parent and a child.
Here are 5 damaging myths that are roadblocks to raising children to successful adulthood.
Myth #1: “Success” is easily measured and the same for all. Success is subjective. It depends on our opportunities, skills and work ethic. It often depends on luck. In the US we have a very rigid definition of success. Ultimately, it comes down to money and the appearance of never ending happiness. This is mythical success. And no matter how many times we hear stories of wealthy celebrities who appear successful ending up in catastrophic circumstances, we can’t shake this myth.
At Child Development Partners our definition of success is appropriate independence, physical and emotional health, and relative contentment. Not sexy,right? But someone who is healthy body and mind, can make their way in the world and feel content is successful. Wealth and chronic anxiety/depression is not what I wish for my child. And I know that never ending happiness is such an impossibility in all of our lives that it isn’t even worth putting up as a possible reality.
Myth #2: Optimal academic success is equal to future adult success. Our children’s lives are full of academic pressure to “make the grade.” School staff and parents are constantly measuring children’s performance to assess if they are accessing the curriculum, maximizing their intellectual potential and getting the best grades possible. This constant drumbeat of academic pressure leaves children and families in a constant state of anxiety and high alert for any cracks in their child’s education that may leave them at a disadvantage in years to come.
The truth is, academic “success” under pressure does not lead to adult success. The news media is full of stories of college students emotionally bereft and unable to function when their academic demands challenge them. Why? Because most of them had so much pressure to achieve and didn’t have time or energy to develop any outside interests or emotional resilience to understand that grades don’t define you as a good person.
Your child’s success depends equally on their academic work, as well as their emotional intelligence, ability to interact with others, coping skills in the face of adversity, problem solving abilities and awareness of what brings them joy. Solving for X doesn’t bring us joy. And if we solely focus on the equivalent of solving for X, how do our kids know what brings them joy?
Academics are important. They are not the only piece of the success puzzle, however.
Myth #3: Staying vigilant to prevent all possible obstacles and pain in our child’s life will lead them to successful adulthood.
No one wants to see their child hurt physically or emotionally. When they hurt, we parents hurt, too. However, life has ups and downs and the way humans learn to manage both the mountains and the valleys is to navigate them with parental support as children, tweens, teens and then successfully manage them independently as adults.
Emerging research is showing us that executive functioning development is linked to free social play, navigating unknown terrain, taking risks in play, pushing physical boundaries and learning from the mistakes inherent in that kind of “risky” play. When our children are constantly monitored, never allowed to climb or swing too high, throw sticks in a pond, tussle,argue and figure it out on their own, they are denied learning skills that will help them be successful in adulthood.
Just like cats and dogs and all animals learn the skills they need to be independent adults through play, our children need the same freedom. While we watch endless videos of kittens pouncing and falling and licking their boo-boos, we need to let our kids do the same to some degree.
Will kids get hurt? Maybe. Can they cry when they feel the emotional pain of rejection or being misunderstood? Of course. Those things hurt and are unfair and it’s crappy to feel that way. But protecting them from all this pain isn’t doing them any favors. There are mean adults out there, just as there are mean kids in school. And research also shows us that kids not allowed to push physical limits at young ages will eventually test those waters as they get older. Would you rather your 6 year old child swing too high, or your 17 year old drive 100mph down the highway?
The truth is, your child can handle a few physical and emotional bruises. In fact, when we give our children the message that they are capable they develop solid self-esteem. But when we give them the message that they are too weak to handle difficulties, they know we assume they aren’t capable. Let’s give our kids the chance to handle the tough stuff and they will use those skills for a lifetime.
Myth #4: What worked for our generation will work for our children. The world has changed a great deal since we were kids. From technology to the economy to the environment, our children are not going to live in the same context we grew up in. Therefore, any assumption that what helped our generation be successful will by default be useful for our kids is a myth.
I grew up in the 1980s when the economy supported a path for young people that looked like this: Do well in school → go to college → get a good job.
This path is not guaranteed now. The school curriculum and testing environment make doing well in school much more complex than when I was a kid (see Myth #1), affording college and the resulting outcome of a college degree are precarious for many families. The path that worked for me, isn’t a clear line to “success” for my son.
When we are raising children who don’t fit the path that led to our success, we struggle with facing the unknown with them. What if they don’t go to college? What if they are saddled with a 6 figure college debt then can’t get a job? What if their income doesn’t allow them to move out of our home and live independently? What if….?
These questions lead to great anxiety and often a retrenchment into the known world of “do well in school and it all works out!”
Try to resist that narrow view. Instead, open up to a wider range of possible paths to success for your children. Encourage using technology to create, expand perspectives,network with likeminded peers and adults. Our culture is full of successful adults who didn’t go to college or didn’t complete it, people with learning disabilities, autism and ADHD. What these people did was innovate, take risks, persevere in the face of difficulty. Those unique traits led them down unique paths that led to great success.
Myth #5: Doing everything “right” guarantees a successful outcome.
Here is what we all fear deep down and in the dark of night–that despite all of the good stuff we do for our kids, they will still struggle or worse, tragedy will befall them (and us).
While I hate to be fatalistic, the truth is, sometimes bad things happen no matter how careful we are. People who eat healthfully and exercise can still get cancer. Children we have nurtured so carefully can get hurt in a car accident.
We hang on to hope that we control the outcome. That if we just gave them every tool they need, cleared away every obstacle, fed them only organic food and eliminated all sugar, they will sail into adulthood completely confident, 100% healthy, have a job that pays well, a loving partner, beautiful kids and we can rest easy knowing we did a good job having a hand in making that happen.
That is the most damaging myth at all. The myth that we can live in the future. The myth that we must constantly focus today’s choices on how they will impact our kids lives years down the line.
When we lose our mindful focus on today, we lose focus on how wonderful our children are NOW. We skip over how much they learn and grow each day and how amazing they are with all of their quirks and ups and downs. Your children want to live with you in the now. They need adults to nurture their intelligence and their emotions and their souls. What will make them successful isn’t the right grades, the right college ,the right job. What will make them successful is knowing their worth, knowing they are capable, knowing they are loved no matter what the test results.
And while it is cliche, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. What if that accident happens and we spent years of our child’s life solely focused and worrying about their future?
Parenting isn’t for the wimpy. We have so many things to consider and plan for. But the benefit we get is to see an amazing person grow into themselves, find their path and fly. It’s a privilege to be part of that metamorphosis.
Your child has what it takes to be successful. Yes, even with their quirks and learning challenges, they will take a unique path and that is a big adventure! Let’s trust them and give them a chance to learn from mistakes, celebrate their imperfections and guide them toward independence. We’ll all have to cry a little (or a lot) along the way, tolerate our worry and remember that success isn’t about a constant state of happiness, it’s about being healthy, able to navigate in the big world,cope and problem solve in the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs.