I am not an educational specialist, child psychologist, school counsellor, ex-teacher, parenting expert or athletic coach. However as a mother of four teens, I often see parents get a little too preoccupied with the external measures of their children’s success – making summa cum laude, the varsity team or entrance to an Ivy college – and losing sight of the inner measures that will enable them to thrive and ‘win’ in the larger game of life.
In referring to ‘winning’, I’m not talking about coming first or Summa Cum Lade, but simply growing into adults who are whole, connected, resilient, and fully engaged in whatever makes them come alive. As parents, we have a limited time to help our kids build ‘muscles for life’ – discernment muscles, grit muscles, responsibility muscles, self-discipline muscles, vulnerability muscles, leadership muscles, compassion muscles… courage muscles! If they leave our nest and haven’t built them, they’ll have a far harder time taking off to soar and thrive as adults.
Here’s 7 ways we can help them do just that.
1. Teach your kids to discern smart risks from foolish ones
Risk often gets a bad rap. But all risks aren’t created equal and so we have to teach our kids to discern between foolish risks and those necessary to achieve what they want. I know, I know… easier said than done.
From the moment we become a parent we are wired to protect our children from harm and there is nothing we fear more than something or someone causing them harm. As we hear stories of terrible things happening to children – from catastrophic injuries to child predators – it only amplifies our fear and focus on the many ‘risks’ our children face. Yet the reality is that the world is a dangerous place and by sheltering them from all risk, we deprive them of the opportunity to develop the skills to assess it accurately. Just because something is scary doesn’t mean it’s bad for us. In fact, sometimes we have to do the very thing that we are most afraid of in order to achieve what we want most.
Encourage your kids to exit the safety of their comfort zone and to try things where they may risk failure or falling short. Sure they won’t always get the result they want, but they’ll learn a lot about what it takes to succeed next time.
(You can read about my son Ben going sky diving for his 13th birthday in this older blog post here.)
2. Nurture their big dreams
On my 40th birthday my daughter Maddy, 10 at the time, gave me a handcrafted birthday voucher on which she wrote:
“This vowcher lets you be my gest at the Oscars when I am nomnated for best actres.”
I recall thinking that she stood more chance of winning an Oscar than the national spelling bee! I then tucked my ‘vowcher’ away for safe keeping until that day arrives. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. I love that she wasn’t afraid to dream big.
Often between dressing up as Superman or Little Mermaid and graduating college, young people dial down their ambitions as the realities of the ‘real’ world press in. Lowering the bar on ambition minimizes the likelihood of not scaling it. But steering your kids toward ‘safe’ aspirations because you’re afraid of what may happen if they take the less certain road less travelled, isn’t loving, it’s selfish. Surely it’s safer in the long run for them to pursue whatever dreams inspire them than one day looking back and wondering ‘What if?’ Sure they may not hit the mark. They may even change their minds. But along the journey they’ll learn more about themselves and life than they ever would otherwise.
I have yet to meet an adult who told me they dreamt too big, but I’ve lost count of those who’ve confided they wished they’d dared more boldly. Our children are capable of extraordinary things, but they’ll only realize their potential when they’re stretched and challenged and encouraged to aspire toward what lights them up.
3. Encourage non-conformity (in doses)
“First impressions count,” is something my kids have heard me say many times as I’ve drummed into them the I importance of being polite and respectful. But I’ve also encouraged them not to let ‘what others will think’ matter more than what they think themselves. There are far too many adults living ‘shouldie’ lives, unconsciously directed by doing what they think they ‘should do’ not what they truly want to do
I don’t care if my kids are the fastest, smartest, or first at anything. Nor do I care if they one day go to the best college or pursue a high-status career path. I do care that whatever path they pursue aligns with the truth of who they are and that fear of ‘what other people think’ doesn’t keep them from developing and expressing their gifts and personality in the world.
4. Share your struggles; reveal your vulnerability
No one gets through life without a few hardships and heartaches. Nurturing our children’s innate resilience is one of the biggest responsibilities of any parent. We set our kids up to navigate life’s corners and curve balls better when we share how we are navigating our own. White-washing reality or pretending all is fine does not doesn’t serve our children in the long run. Likewise, as I wrote about in my latest book You’ve Got This!, revealing your vulnerability won’t make you seem weak; it will show them you’re human. The more comfortable you are with your own vulnerability, the more comfortable your children will be with theirs.
My children have seen me shed tears over the years as I’ve grieved the loss of people I love. (Actually, they’ve seen me shed tears watching tv commercials.) They know moving home and hemispheres numerous times has tested my own resilience and that I’ve sometimes wrestled with disappointment, difficult decisions and derailed plans. Sharing your struggles teaches a powerful lesson in personal responsibly. That is, we can’t always choose our circumstances, but we always get to choose our response to them.
5. Refuse to trade in excuses
Boys will be boys, teens will be teens, and kids will be kids. I know, I know, I know. But too often I see parents dismiss irresponsible, aggressive, thoughtless and disrespectful behaviour as ‘kids being kids’ and let their children off the hook from the consequences of their actions. Just because behaviour may fall within the norm doesn’t mean we should blindly tolerate it or fail to hold them to account for it. Your kids may still be kids but they are already on the path to being the adults they will one day become. Expect more from them than they may expect from themselves. Trading in excuses and letting them evade consequences does them, and everyone they’ll ever work or live with, a major disservice.
When my kids mess up or melt-down, I try to give them the space or encouragement they need in the moment (until their ‘neural highjack’ has passed over). However, I also make sure they confront the fall out of their behaviour and ask them to think about how they could have handled things better (if they’re unsure, I offer up a few suggestions!) Mistakes are wonderful opportunities for our kids to grow maturity and wisdom. Don’t spare them that opportunity by allowing them to brush them off because you’re too afraid (or proud) yourself of what that may entail.
6. Seize opportunities to teach self-reliance
During a parent/teacher meeting my daughter Maddy when she was in middle school, one of her teachers commented on how I expected a lot from her. I remember pondering on this afterward… was I expect too much? I decided that while I may have expected her to be responsible for managing a lot of things, I didn’t feel I was ever expecting more of her than she was capable of doing. And i certainly didn’t feel she was any worse off for how much I expected from her.
From tying an 8 year olds shoe laces, doing a year 8’s homework, to doing an 18 year olds laundry, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen parents do things for their children that their children are clearly capable of doing for themselves. While there’s nothing inherently right or wrong about filling in your kids forms for them, tidying their room or making their lunch (or building their Pinewood Derby cars as so many dads did for their scouting sons while I was living in Virginia) when they’re old and capable enough to do it themselves, you can be depriving them of a valuable opportunity to develop life skills, the self-reliance and confidence that flows from it. Sure, you can do it better and faster than they can, but letting go your own needs a little can help them to learn a gain skills and confidence they otherwise would’t.
Fortunately my daily working mother juggling act has spared me from ever being remotely guilty of helicopter parenting. I often have little idea what school projects my kids have to do, or when they’re due. However I know that whatever marks they get, it’s all on them. More importantly, they know it too.
7. Hug hard and hug often (even when eyes roll!)
I’ve never heard of anyone spending years in therapy because their parents were too affectionate. Yet I’ve met and coached many adults whose deep fear of being unlovable has kept them from developing the intimate relationships, left them settling for destructive ones or driven them to burn trying to prove their innate worthiness.
Children learn to how to be emotionally playful and physically affectionate by experiencing it. Of course with three teenagers, and one twelve-teen in our family, I’ve come to accept that my kids don’t always love hugging me as much as I love hugging them (despite how smelly my teen sons have become!) That said, whenever I get the chance, I wrap my arms around each of them and let them know how proud I am of them (even if not the state of their bedrooms, but that’s another topic!)
You teach your kids how to be courageous in love (and life) when you make them feel worthy of love, no matter what. Of all the gifts we can ever give to our kids, there is none more precious than that.
Margie Warrell is an internationally renowned speaker, bestselling author and mother of four brave and noisy children. Check out her new book You’ve Got This! The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself at www.margiewarrell.com.