You are here

Helping Kids to Do Their Best

We're born with a drive to achieve. Just observe an infant's Herculean struggles to crawl, stand, and finally walk, and the eagerness to master language. But when children enter school, their ideas about achievement are complicated by expectations of parents, teachers, friends, communities, and even our national culture.

As moms and dads, it's tempting to expect that our kids will excel in some areas. But what's more important is simpler: the ability to set goals and work toward achieving them, says David Johnson, Ed.D., professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Ultimately, achievement is not about competing but about winning a deeper fulfillment by overcoming obstacles and self-doubt. You can help stoke that desire in your child, keeping in mind that what motivates ambition changes as she grows.

Contributing editor Douglas S. Barasch, father of Katie, 7, and Nicholas, 2, is a New York writer who specializes in parenting topics.

Setting the Course

AGES 5 to 7

As children enter kindergarten, almost all see themselves as among the top achievers in their class. And no wonder: Almost daily they prove how much they can improve (in reading, drawing, sharing). Still, the most important measure of kids' achievement is love and approval from parents. So ask yourself: Do I place the most value on my child's final product -- the base hit, the flawless recital -- or the effort it took her to get there?

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Columbia University, explains that children whose parents emphasize effort, hard work, practice, and learning from mistakes turn out to be especially resilient when confronted with challenges. These kids jump into new tasks and willingly give up the chance to look smart so they can learn something new and important.

Of course, we all care how others judge us, and, indeed, this can be a way to evaluate progress. But a kid who's urged to achieve at any cost can be more vulnerable to failure and discontent -- worried that she's not worthy or that her parents won't love her if she fails.

Children's strengths lie in different areas and develop at varied rates, so give kids a range of experiences to uncover new interests. Encourage your child to think broadly about what accomplishment means, so that helping a friend, for example, is seen as a goal. Praise efforts of those who aid others, such as firefighters.

Setting the Course

AGES 5 to 7

As children enter kindergarten, almost all see themselves as among the top achievers in their class. And no wonder: Almost daily they prove how much they can improve (in reading, drawing, sharing). Still, the most important measure of kids' achievement is love and approval from parents. So ask yourself: Do I place the most value on my child's final product -- the base hit, the flawless recital -- or the effort it took her to get there?

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Columbia University, explains that children whose parents emphasize effort, hard work, practice, and learning from mistakes turn out to be especially resilient when confronted with challenges. These kids jump into new tasks and willingly give up the chance to look smart so they can learn something new and important.

Of course, we all care how others judge us, and, indeed, this can be a way to evaluate progress. But a kid who's urged to achieve at any cost can be more vulnerable to failure and discontent -- worried that she's not worthy or that her parents won't love her if she fails.

Children's strengths lie in different areas and develop at varied rates, so give kids a range of experiences to uncover new interests. Encourage your child to think broadly about what accomplishment means, so that helping a friend, for example, is seen as a goal. Praise efforts of those who aid others, such as firefighters.

Making Their Own Choices

AGES 9 to 12

At this stage, decisions kids grapple with and opinions they form about themselves often depend on what their peers think. Social and academic settings encourage children to pigeonhole each other's strengths and weaknesses. Labels such as "jocks" and "nerds" and stereotypes of gender emerge. But you can help your child see that divisions like masculine and feminine, athletic and intellectual, shouldn't stop him from pursuing a passion. An athlete can enjoy science; a boy can adore ballet.

Labeling a child too early based on achievements could close off new opportunities. "I have 10-year-old students with big vocabularies who can read anything but have difficulty really understanding what a story means," explains Andrew Slater, coordinator of the middle school at the Bank Street School for Children in New York City. "I have other kids with wonderful ideas who can't express them coherently. So who's doing better?" Achievement is in the eye of the beholder.

Children at this age who are pushed by parents to excel, especially in areas they wouldn't choose for themselves, run into a different problem: burnout. A staggering number of kids who participate in organized sports outside of school quit by age 13, mostly because it's no longer fun. This can also trip up budding musicians or chess players. That's why children, as they near adolescence, should decide for themselves what engages them.

Of course, there can't be much choice when it comes to completing one's homework. But, beyond these required tasks, parents need to tune in to their youngster's interests, since a crucial motivation for ambition and achievement is loving the activity, says Johnson.

Unfortunately, children at these ages often underestimate their abilities, according to Dweck's research. "They carry failures around in a way that younger kids don't," she observes. Your job, then, is to counter this negative self-image without distorting the truth. Remember that self-esteem is more than feeling good about yourself; it must be based on reality, she says.

To smooth the way, you can also offer your youngster extra assistance, such as tutoring, coaching, advice, and, most important, unconditional love and encouragement. The feeling of mastery or competence that results may boost her self-esteem. Most of all, share the philosophy that achievement isn't about first place, top prizes, or high test scores. True accomplishment is about an appreciation of the effort you make. These lessons are ones that moms and dads should follow in their own lives, too.

comments