5 ways we can help our children succeed

Claire McCarthy, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

In the wake of the recent college admissions scandal, in which rich parents paid thousands or even millions of dollars to bribe coaches or have someone else take standardized tests for their children so that they could get into elite colleges, there has been a lot of discussion about admission to elite colleges — and about what it takes to succeed.

All parents want their children to succeed in life. Going to an elite college can help, mostly in terms of networking and resume-building, but is that the ticket to success? Probably not.

True success and happiness in life comes from being able to create, persevere, roll with life’s punches, and work with others. The good news is that parents and caregivers can teach children these skills from infancy onward — for free. Here are five ways parents can set up their children for success.

1.  Reinforce executive function skills. Executive function skills are our “air traffic control” skills, such as our ability to pay attention, plan, troubleshoot, multitask, control our emotions, negotiate, and delay gratification. These are skills that children learn as they grow — and are skills that can be taught and reinforced. There are activities and games that parents can do with their children that help build these skills, many of which involve using their imagination and interacting with others — which works best when devices are turned off, and when time is not filled up with scheduled activities.

2.   Let children be independent — and let them fail. These days, many parents limit their children’s independence. Some of it is for good reason — we want children to be safe — but children cannot grow into independent adults if they never get to explore the world around them and make choices for themselves, which inevitably means that they will make at least the occasional bad choice. But learning from mistakes is some of the best learning we do. If you start early, giving your children leeway while teaching them safety skills at the same time, they will be ready and confident when the time comes. It’s always tempting to jump in and save them, but try to limit that to the real emergencies. If they fall from a jungle gym and get hurt, get a bad grade because they left an assignment at home, flub an audition or team tryout, next time they will do better, especially if you are supportive and help them think it through. They will also learn that they can survive these mistakes, which is helpful as you try to…

3.  Foster resilience. Resilience is the ability to manage adversity, to deal with setbacks and failure and get back up again. Letting children be independent — and fail — helps build this. It’s how they practice. Having the consistent support of loving adults is key, but that support should be the “I’ve got your back” and “I’ll love you no matter what” kind of support, not the “I’ll do this for you” or “I’ll make sure you succeed” kind of support.

4.  Build social skills and empathy. The ability to “play in the sandbox” is key to success, and to do that children need to learn how to make and keep friends, how to listen to others and care about their thoughts and feelings. From teaching “please” and “thank you” and taking turns, to getting them involved in activities involving social interactions, to getting involved in community and volunteer activities, there are many ways that parents can build these skills. Setting a good example always helps.

5.  Encourage curiosity and creativity. Go places like parks or museums or historical sites. Explore together. Go to the library and get books. Have lots of paper and paint around. Make things together. Watch documentaries; read the news and talk about it. Make up stories. Build things. Help your child see the world as full of fascination and possibility. Help them understand how much ability they have to create.

These are the skills that make a difference, not where someone goes to college. These are the skills that help people find their way, succeed at what they do — and have fun doing it.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

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