Raise Successful Achievers

December 7th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Parents who want their children to achieve something called “success” may find that this goal conflicts with their desire for their children to also become happy. Achieving success, as typically defined by our culture, emphasizes wealth and social status, and is often at odds with what the research has shown to produce happiness. A perusal of the psychology section of any bookstore shows that the goal of achieving success by itself is inadequate. As Dr. Jack Wetter, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist, observes, “On the one side, you’ve got books on how to raise achieving, successful children. And across from that, you’ve got books for adults on how to overcome your depression and increase your self-esteem.” So success is simply not enough.

The goal of parents should be to raise successful achievers. Successful achievers are very different from children who simply achieve success. In the latter case, children are successful, for example, they get straight As in school, are top athletes, or star in the performing arts, but are also unhappy. In contrast, parents who want to raise successful achievers view success and happiness as mutually inclusive; success without happiness is not success at all.

The development of successful achievers comes from fostering the Three Pillars of Successful Achievers: self-esteem, ownership, and emotional mastery. These three areas provide the foundation for raising children who become successful, happy, value-driven, and contributing adults.

First Pillar: Self-esteem

Self-esteem has been perhaps the most misunderstood and misused developmental factor in recent generations. In the last few decades, parents were led to believe that self-esteem developed if a child felt loved and valued. This belief caused parents to love and encourage and support and reward and reinforce their children regardless of what their children actually did.

Yet, this “unconditional love” is only one half of the self-esteem equation. The second part is that children need to develop a sense of competence and mastery over their world. Most basically, children must learn that their actions matter, that their actions have consequences. If they do good things, good things happen. If they do bad things, bad things happen. And, importantly, if they do nothing, nothing happens.

The only way for children to develop this sense of competence is for them to try things, succeed, and, yes, experience failure. Unfortunately, parents make two mistakes in their ill-advised attempts to develop this sense of competence in their children. First, they try to convince their children how capable they are by telling them they are the most wonderful, talented, amazing children. The problem with this approach is that life has a way of showing children who have been convinced that they are exceptional by their parents that, well, they really aren’t. Second, out of a misguided belief that failure would hurt their children’s self-esteem, many parents did their best to “protect” their children from failure. In doing so, children couldn’t learn from and gain competence from their mistakes and parents created the very thing that they wanted to avoid, namely, children with low self-esteem.

Yes, children need to feel loved and secure to develop high self-esteem. But, just as importantly, they must feel a sense of competence in their capabilities to navigate their increasingly complex world.

Second Pillar: Ownership

Out of fear that their children won’t become as successful as their parents want them to be, many parents make their children their little “achievement projects,” managing and micromanaging their children to ensure they do everything they need to achieve success. In doing so, these parents steal their children’s lives by taking ownership of their achievement activities. These parents place the burden of their own self-esteem on their children’s shoulders, a crushing weight I assure you. Though these efforts are often well-intentioned (these parents love their children and want them to be successful), the result is that children feel no sense of ownership or responsibility for their own efforts. Without this ownership of their lives and goals, children have little incentive to work hard toward those goals (except perhaps out of fear that their parents won’t love them). The children end up thinking, “This isn’t mine, so why should I even try.” These children come to hate the achievement activity in which they participate because they feel forced to do it and usually end up quitting, even something they once loved.

Many parents with whom I consult complain that their children have lost their motivation and it’s my job to find their motivation (as if it has gotten lost behind their dresser or under their bed). But the question isn’t where did they lose their motivation, but rather what is suppressing it. The amazing (and paradoxical) thing is that when parents relinquish ownership of their children’s achievement activities, they free their children to regain ownership and passion for them.

Children need to gain a sense of ownership of their life’s interests, efforts, and achievements. This ownership means that they engage in an activity out of an enduring love for it, because they see its value, or because it is necessary to achieve their goals, and, as a result, have an internally-derived motivation to do their best. They think “This is mine, so I want to do my best.” This ownership also provides them with an immense source of gratification and pride from their efforts that further motivates them to strive higher in their achievement activities.

Third Pillar: Emotional Mastery

The third pillar of successful achievers, emotional mastery, is perhaps the most neglected aspect of  children’s development. Despite its obvious importance, where do children learn about emotions? Either from their parents (now that could be a scary idea) or from popular culture (which rarely shows healthy expression of emotions). Also, parents have been led to believe that allowing their children to experience negative emotions, such as frustration, anger, and sadness, will somehow hurt their self-esteem. So parents placate, assuage, comfort, and distract their children from these emotions and attempt to create artificial positive emotions (by praising and buying things for them). The problem is that emotions are two sides of the same coin. Children can’t experience love, happiness, joy, excitement, unless they are allowed to experience frustration, anger, and sadness.

Parents who protect their children from their emotions are actually interfering with their children’s emotional growth. These children end up never learning how to deal effectively with their emotions because they have little experience with their emotions and enter adulthood ill-equipped for its emotional demands. Only by being allowed to experience the full range of emotions are children able to figure out what emotions they are feeling, what the emotions mean to them, and how they can express them in healthy ways.

Emotional mastery is not the absence of emotions, but rather the ability to recognize emotions, understand where they came from, and express them in healthy ways. Children who do not develop emotionally can still achieve success—we see many very successful businesspeople, professional athletes, and actors who are acclaimed—but the price they pay is often discontentment and unhappiness in their successes (as expressed in, for example, immaturity, narcissism, alcohol and drug abuse, and divorce). Emotional mastery enables children to not only become successful, but also to find satisfaction and joy in their efforts, in other words, to become successful achievers.

How to Raise Successful Achievers

The ability of your children to become successful achievers will be grounded in essential beliefs that you foster in them. Drs. Aubrey Fine and Michael Sachs, the authors of Total Sports Experience for Kids, offer a valuable summary of those beliefs (I have added numbers #1 and #7, and the parenthetical comments):

1.  I am loved (sense of value),

2.  I am capable (sense of competence),

3.  It is important to try (value of effort),

4.  I am responsible for my day (sense of ownership),

5.  It is okay to make mistakes (accept failure),

6.  I can handle things when they go wrong (response to adversity),

7.  I enjoy what I do (value of passion and joy),

8.  I can change (being a master).

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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