Most parents want their kids to be successful in life—and so we teach them attitudes that we believe will help them achieve their goals. But many widely-held theories about what it takes to be successful are proving to be counterproductive.
Here are a few of the most damaging things many of us are currently teaching our children about success, and what to teach them instead, from Science Director of Stanford University.
What we tell our kids: Focus on the future. Keep your eyes on the prize.
What we should be telling them: Live (or work) in the moment.
It’s hard to stay tightly focused. And when our minds wander, we often start to brood over the past or worry about the future—thereby leading to negative emotions like anger, regret, and stress. A mind that is constantly trying to focus upon the future—from getting good grades to applying to colleges—will be prone to greater anxiety and fear.
What we tell our kids: Stress is inevitable—keep pushing yourself.
What we should be telling them instead: Learn to chill out.
I recommend that parents consider teaching their children the skills they will need to be more resilient in the face of stressful events. While we can’t change the work and life demands that we face at work and at school, we can use techniques such as meditation, yoga and breathing to better deal with the pressures we face.
What we tell our kids: Stay busy.
What we should be telling them: Have fun doing nothing.
Even in our leisure time, people in Western societies tend to value high-intensity positive emotions like excitement, as opposed to low-intensity emotions like calm. This means that our kids’ schedules are often packed to the brim with extracurricular activities and family outings, leaving little downtime.
What we tell our kids: Play to your strengths.
What we should be telling them: Make mistakes and learn to fail.
Parents tend to identify their children by their strengths and the activities that come naturally to them. This can make them more anxious and depressed when faced with failure or challenges. Why? Because they believe that, if they encounter obstacles in a given area, that make them “not good at” the activity.
But our brains are wired to learn new things. And it can only be a good thing to learn from our mistakes while we’re young. So instead identifying your child’s strengths, teach them that they actually can learn anything—as long as they try. And they will be less likely to feel down about themselves and their talents.
What we tell our kids: Know your weaknesses, and don’t be soft.
What we should be telling them: Treat yourself well.
We also tend to think that criticism is important for self-improvement. But while self-awareness is of course important, parents often inadvertently teach their children to be too self-critical. If a parent tells a child that she should try to be more outgoing, for example, the child may internalize that as a criticism of her naturally introverted personality.
Instead, parents should encourage children to develop attitudes of self-compassion—which means treating yourself as you would a friend in times of failure or pain. This doesn’t mean that your children should be self-indulgent or let themselves off the hook when they mess up. It simply means that they learn not to beat themselves up.
What we tell our kids: It’s a dog-eat-dog world—so look out for number one.
What we should be telling them: Show compassion to others.
Research shows that, from childhood onward, our social connections are the most important predictor of health, happiness, and even longevity. Having positive relationships with other people is essential for our well-being, which in turn influences our intellectual abilities and ultimate success.
Children are naturally compassionate and kind. So it’s important to encourage children’s natural instincts to care about other people’s feelings and learn to put themselves in other people’s shoes.