By: Dr. Ken Ginsburg, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, for the Parents are T.A.L.K.I.N.G website*
What is Success?
We can all agree that we want our children to become successful in adulthood. So we must thoughtfully consider what we mean when we use the term “success”. Otherwise we may push our children into a box that may interfere with their ability to make smart decisions and thrive in the long term.
We must not look only at the children we see in front of us now. If we do, we may judge their success by current decisions or behaviors. And we might accidentally focus on only two measures – the smile on their faces and the grades they produce in school.
Judging success by happiness is problematic. It’s too easy to make children happy. Give 5-year-olds a new ball and they beam. Get 12-year-olds a new bike and they are overjoyed. Order teens a camera or iPad and they are thrilled. Similarly, it is too easy to make children unhappy. Setting limits on a video game can bring 7-year-olds to tears. Taking a phone away from 12-year-olds can send them into a fit. Setting firm dating boundaries for teens may trigger anger if they differ from those set by their friend’s parents.
Judging success by grades or academic achievement also holds limitations. Grades measure only one aspect of effort. Grades can make young people feel incompetent, rather than allowing them to celebrate strengths they possess in areas ungraded. If we judge success by grades, our children may determine their worth by what they’ve achieved by age 18.
We’re not saying happiness isn’t valued or that grades are not important. We are saying we must gain perspective by looking beyond the young person standing before us. To begin envisioning the 35, 40, or 50-year-old we are building. When we focus on the future, our understanding of a successful childhood and adolescence broadens.
Long Term Success
One of our challenges as parents is to create the circumstances in which young people discover their own strengths. Adults contribute to the world in many different ways. Consider strengths adults may need while understanding that we are all imperfect.
- Successful adults need and deserve happiness. Happiness looks differently to a 35-year-old than to a 6-year-old. It’s not about a possession, treats (not that adults don’t like cookies), or a privilege. Happy adults are satisfied with their contribution. They find meaning and really feel they matter. Content adults have supportive relationships (sexual, platonic and professional) that remind them that they can make a difference in the lives of others.
- Successful adults repair our world. We need adults ready to solve problems. Willing to reach out with compassion towards those who are suffering. Prepared to join with others to build better communities.
- Successful adults work hard. They know real effort produces results to be proud of. When problems are not solved quickly, they keep at it. And they can delay gratification because they view life as a marathon rather than a sprint.
- Successful adults appreciate and nurture relationships. While work is important, they understand that family is irreplaceable and friendships are critical to balanced lives. They recognize that healthy sexual relationships are defined by trust and mutual respect. Successful adults tend to be part of connected communities. And they commit to self-care, so they have the energy to care for others.
- Successful adults collaborate. Their social and emotional intelligence allows them to hear others’ perspectives. In the workplace, they take advantage of the concept that more brains are often better than one in getting positive results.
- Successful adults honor diverse thought. They realize they’ll learn more from people with different experiences than those who’ve shared similar life paths.
- Successful adults never stop learning. In life, it makes them open to wonder and ongoing joys. While in the workplace, it enables them to experience constructive criticism as a growth opportunity. And in relationships, it permits for a deeper understanding of their partner’s needs.
- Successful adults are resilient. Rather than focusing on their shortcomings, they seek growth. Their mindset allows them to see the difference between a real tiger and a “paper tiger” — something that feels ferocious in the moment, but can do them no real harm. They trust they’ll get through any situation in time.
Focusing on the Adult Your Child Will Become
We want you to see your children and teens fully. They deserve parents who care about short-term achievements — even grades. But over-focusing on these measures can undermine what is really needed long-term to become healthy, successful adults.
Widening your definition of success to consider the adult you are raising takes pressure off of you and your teens. Your teens’ success becomes less about whether they are happy in any given moment. It also decreases the urgency related to what they do immediately after high school. They have a lifetime to achieve success. Your job is not to get them to the finish line, but to prepare them with the character strengths that will launch them into the future.
*Portions of this article have been excerpted from a longer piece appearing on the Center for Parent and Teen Communication website.