Parenting isn’t for the faint of heart. As parents, we struggle to find the path of appropriate support. Kids need our protection, especially early in their lives, and our guidance as they get older. It’s easy, though, to become convinced that as adults, we know what is best for our children, including what ranks as acceptable goals and performances in school, and ultimately even the career path our child should choose. We can become so convinced about the path our children should follow that we create a life map for them and force them to follow it.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult, recently gave a TED talk entitled How to Raise Successful Kids – Without Over-Parenting. It has already been viewed over a half million times.
Lythcott-Haims, with insight and humor, describes parents who are desperate for their kid to get into one of a handful of colleges and universities that routinely deny almost every applicant that seeks entrance into their hallowed grounds. Desperate parents, anxious to Bask in the Reflected Glory (BIRG) of their kid, create desperate students who are withering under high rates of anxiety and depression. Such kids are absolved from chores and even sleep as they try to attain the impossible. The purpose of childhood, she emphasizes, should not be about grades, scores, awards, and accolades, which are based on a super narrow definition of success, a process, whether successful or not, that comes with a long term cost to children’ sense of self. With eloquence and her own conviction, which is all the more impressive given her role at Stanford, she concludes by urging parents to be less concerned about elite colleges and more concerned about their children having the habits of mind to be successful wherever they go, to be less concerned about grades and more concerned about success built on love and chores. Yes, chores.
I first wrote about the BIRG acronym in Vexed in California (January 9, 2013), and then described it more fully in Why Fulfill Your Own Dreams, When Your Kids Can Do It For You? (February 28, 2013). Click on these titles for a quick review. BIRG parents seek to have their Basic Need for Power and Success met through the achievements of their children. BIRG parents are much less concerned, if at all, with their children discovering and establishing their own identity, and the schools classes and career path that ultimately come out of that identity, and more concerned about their child performing in a way that makes them as parents look good – not just good grades, but great grades in honors classes; not just sports involvement, but starting roles on multiple varsity sports; not just being involved in a club, but being president of the club. You get the picture. Hiding behind the guise of simply wanting what is best for my child, parents exploit their children’s efforts and even health for their own gain. Should parents, instead then, let their children flounder as they go about “discovering” themselves. As Lythcott-Haims forcefully replies, “Hell, no!” Loving support that honors the interests of our children does not have to morph into BIRGing. It’s just that we don’t do our children any favors when we prevent them from finding their own sense of self.
I wonder if Julie Lythcott-Haims is aware of the work of Denise Clark Pope, a fellow Stanford professor and author of the book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. I really recommend Doing School for high school teachers and parents of high school students. It is very readable, partly because it is based on five case studies – real students Pope shadowed at a top high school in the Bay Area. Wanting to discover what engaged students in the process of learning, she discovered instead that students are committed less to real learning and more to creating an impressive resume. Students, she found out, are simply “doing school,” which, unfortunately, is another way of saying they are trying to win the game by playing according to the rules we, as adults, have created. A really interesting and important read.
Finally, Glasser talked about the importance of not rescuing kids. Over-parenting prevents kids from leading their own lives, including solving problems of their own creation. We establish our identity as we are given chances to experience success, all the while keeping track of what we did well, and failure, which then can include fixing what we messed up and then making a better plan for a future attempt. A story from scripture comes to mind, the one where John the Baptist is trying to explain his role to his disciples, who are concerned about a new preacher, someone named Jesus, who was taking attention away from John. To this John explained, “He must increase and I must decrease.” This phrase might be good to keep in mind when it comes to parents (and teachers) having specific pictures in their head of what their child’s success and future look like. “My pictures need to lessen as I help my child nurture the pictures that are important to him,” a parent can decide. Our love and support are never removed during this shift toward their freedom and responsibility. Unconditional love is always the key!
It was so good to meet and work with the staff at Indiana Academy last week in Cicero, Indiana. Steve Baughman, the principal, is leading a young, committed team toward a school culture that is based on the concepts of choice theory.