When I was a new mom, I met a couple I’ll call the Jacksons whose primary goal was to raise their children to become achievement-oriented adults. While this is a common wish for parents, the Jacksons had a fairly extreme way of going about it. When their son was less than a year old, the Jacksons initiated a family policy that no one was to give him anything; if he wanted something, he had to learn to get it for himself.
The Jacksons truly believed that if their child had just the bare minimum (of food, clothing, etc.) and was always in need, he would be motivated to find a way to get whatever he wanted on his own—setting him on the path to eventual success.
In contrast, many “helicopter parents” harbor the same dreams for their children and yet lean toward the opposite extreme by hovering—offering too much guidance and praise. My experience has been that both of these parenting styles ultimately may do a disservice to children and impede their confidence and success.
As a therapist, I suggest a middle-ground approach to parenting that yields the best outcomes for children in terms of success, psychological well-being and self-confidence. Albert Bandura, a psychologist and expert in cognitive development, developed the concept of “self-efficacy”—the way people view themselves as capable and productive makes a tremendous difference in their success. The best way for parents to help children accomplish this is by providing appropriate guidance, support and praise, while allowing for experimentation and even failure.
The following key elements are essential for raising children to become motivated, successful and goal-oriented adults.
1. Help kids build confidence in themselves
Example: Your child is starting a new class, activity or sport. Let her know that it is normal to be worried about something new, but also that she has certain skills that she can use to apply to this new situation. Be specific about what those skills are and give examples of when she has used those skills successfully.
2. Help them understand the “Why”
I have heard so many parents utter the following overused phrases: “because I said so,” “you have to do that because it’s your homework assignment” or “the coach/teacher/tutor/school said so.” While each of these statements may be true, they do not explain the reasons or benefits of doing that task. Homework builds skills, allows for practice and teaches concepts outside of the classroom. Our children need to understand these reasons, not simply that they have a duty.
Example: Your child says, “I don’t like to read. I think it is boring and I am not good at it.” You respond that it’s OK, not everyone likes reading, but reading is important. You make it clear that as he grows older there will be lots of things he will need to read and understand, and the only way to do that is to practice.
3. Teach kids to look inward for competition and achievement
Goal-oriented children learn that trying to do better than they did yesterday and the day before is much more important than trying to be equal to or greater than someone else. Each of us has a unique set of skills and abilities, and we need to focus on honing them so that we can maximize our own growth.
During the recent Olympics in Rio, it was clear that swimmer Michael Phelps’ disappointment in his London performance in 2012 was a stronger motivation to excel than any rivalry.
Example: Your child says, “Johnny is better than I am at math” or “Alexandra runs so much faster than I do.” The response should be something like the following: “Johnny and Alexandra will be better at some things than you are, and you will be better at other things than they are; we do not need to compare. Instead, let’s talk about how much faster you are than you were in second grade and figure out how we can help you get faster before next year.”
4. Help kids set reasonable goals and make plans to accomplish them
Goal setting starts at an early age. It begins when kids learn to do homework before watching TV, or how to clean their rooms and make their beds in an efficient and effective way. As parents, we need to teach our kids what types of goals are reasonable and then help them strategize a way to get them accomplished.
Example: Your child has a big project due in two weeks. You sit down with her to discuss how long it will take, what days she will work on it and the best way to get it done well. Then follow up with her to make sure she is keeping on schedule. If we as parents can provide support and guidance while giving kids the stepping stones to develop their own confidence and self-esteem—and let them learn their own lessons through experience—they will be well on their way to success.
Stacy Kaiser is a licensed psychotherapist, author, relationship expert and media personality. She is also the author of the best-selling book, How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know, and an editor-at-large for Live Happy. Stacy is a frequent guest on television programs such as Today and Good Morning America.