Raising a Good Kid Should Matter More Than Academic Achievement at Every Age & Stage
Over the past week, news of a college admissions scandal in the United States has dominated our feeds. The story is that dozens of rich and powerful parents have been caught allegedly cheating, bribing and forging their children’s way into prestigious universities like UCLA, Stanford, Georgetown and Yale.
Unfortunately, this scandal is more than a commentary on how rich and powerful people use their money and connections to bend the rules. It’s also a commentary on what so many of us believe our role as parents should be and what we value when it comes to our children.
Cheating to get your kid ahead is indicative of how deeply we value academic achievement and perception over character and effort.
While the degree might get a kid the job, independence, problem-solving, resilience, perseverance and emotional intelligence are what will help him keep it and be successful in all areas of life. Those are the skills that are truly transferrable and make for good, well-rounded humans, the kind of people others want to be around and work with. Those are the skills that are often in short supply and therefore the true differentiators between people.
Those of us raised in the 1970s and 1980s probably had more “free-range” childhoods than children of later decades. Those of us from the latch-key, come home when the streetlights come on, cell-phone-free generation were raised with a slightly different ethos – one that embraced self-sufficiency.
The Shift to Hyper-Parenting
In the last few decades, however, there’s been a shift towards hyper-parenting, driven in part by the 24-hour news cycle that has erroneously convinced us kidnappers are lurking around every corner. Socio-economic realities like the emerging global marketplace and erosion of the middle class have also contributed to an increased focus on academic achievement as the best route to success (which is too often defined only in financial terms).
The result? A generation of parents who think they have to be actively involved in every aspect of their child’s life in order for him to stay safe and succeed.
But in reality, this often results in children who haven’t learned general coping skills; who haven’t experienced what it’s like to overcome obstacles, self-govern or to bounce back from disappointment.
Rightfully so, mental health is a huge concern for kids of all ages
And it’s no wonder parents think the best way to protect their children’s delicate psyches is to make sure they get everything they want without struggling. But what are the long-term consequences of this approach? And isn’t it short-sighted? Doesn’t it absolve us from doing the really hard work of parenting, the in-the-trenches, teaching the hard lessons kind of work that is exhausting and difficult but ultimately so rewarding?
Someone once told me, after watching my newly-adopted four-year-old run up and down the halls of my office hollering at the top of her lungs and disrupting everyone and everything in a 50-metre radius, that it was time to stop babysitting and start parenting. This is something I’ve never forgotten. A babysitter would smile and tell the child to be quiet, redirect with another activity. A parent immediately puts a stop to it and firmly explains why certain behaviour is unacceptable and how our actions impact others. A parent implements consequences. Now, every time I find myself leaning towards the easier route, the path of least resistance, I remember that I’m a parent, not a babysitter.
Most of us want to teach our kids that it’s important to be fair and that there’s a difference between right and wrong. We also want our children to believe they’re capable of anything, that they’re special and unique. But these two paradigms aren’t always easy to reconcile because the latter often slides into allowing our children, and ourselves, to think they’re more valuable than other kids. Then, when what we preach about hard work and ethics isn’t practiced, or when those values are selectively applied, everything we say we value is contradicted and undermined.
There’s nothing harder than watching your child fail.
But raising good humans and helping them succeed is not mutually exclusive. It’s our job to teach our kids how to exist in a competitive world, how to differentiate themselves, how to stand out. Leveraging our own experiences and knowledge in service to our children is a big part of what parenting should be.
What parenting should not be is removing all obstacles from your child’s path.
Parents who really want to give their children an advantage should spend their money on activities that support real-life skills, not on taking short cuts. Parenting is a long game but it’s not a competitive sport and many of us need to learn to back off and let our kids navigate the world more independently. We are coaches, not managers; trainers, not agents.
Putting a premium on academic achievement is just one way we take a short-sighted approach to parenting, and one way we might be denying our kids the opportunity to discover all the other ingredients that make for good human beings. We all want our kids to succeed. We all want our kids to have advantages and realize their potential. But it’s our job to teach it to them, not hand it to them.