In response to my previous post about the best advice Martha Stewart ever received, a friend emailed me, "So how do we teach our children what Martha Stewart's dad taught her?"
Now, Readers, I have absorbed a lot of material about success over the last year – year or two (can you believe) – and it’s changed me in ways I can no longer parse into categories. Things have blended together in my head into a big smoothie of success. This analogy is my acknowledgment that I may repeat something someone else, someone much Bigger, someone much more Expert, someone much more Famous (which is not at all hard) than myself may have said, and if so, I apologize. In advance. In advance of any advance I may eventually receive for work not yet published, in fact.
Now that’s out of the way.
My amalgamated advice is as follows:
- Believe your children are capable of great things – however they may grow up to define them.
- Tell your children you believe this of them.
- Praise and encourage all effort, persistence, and progress your children make.
- Encourage them to make and meet goals.
- Allow them time to be autonomous when possible and to find the creativity in all disciplines.
- Model, model, model for them your own effort, persistence, and progress toward goals you set yourself.
- Model your creative engagement. As one reader commented, show them that it’s worthwhile to devote full attention to whatever you do, and not to hold back in hope of something better coming along.
- Celebrate achievement – but focus on achievement being the result of effort. And persistence and progress.
- Model resilience after setbacks.
- Hope for the best!
Now, this list may skew a little vague and touchy-feely, and it is. Oh, it is. But I think and hope it works. I guess we’ll find out eventually.
All of this advice begs a deeper question that came up from several emails and comments from my treasured readers: How much control do we actually have over our children's development? You see, Readers, I've noticed a tendency, a propensity, shall we say, among people to change their views on how much influence parents actually have over their children, depending on how old their children are, and how much of a mess their grown up childrens' lives appear to be. In short, Readers, I’ve noticed that the older children get, the less their parents say they have any effect on or control over their choices and personalities.
Buddhists, Kahlil Gibran (“your children are not your children, they are blah, blah, blah"), and anyone who’s a grandparent will tell you: NONE.
And Madeleine Levine, my current book mama, says that once your kid gets to 11, 12, 13 and so on, it’s pretty much up to their friends to shape them. Krikey. This is somewhat distressing to the parent who spends a good part of the night obsessing over what courses her child should take in high school.
So what good is my list?
One way of looking at this problem is that our parental understanding develops as our children develop from infancy to adulthood. We move from the SENSATION of having no control, except (and this is big) over their physical selves, due to our relative gigantism compared to them, to FEAR that we have no control over them, to HOPE that we aren’t responsible for them. That is, unless they turned out fabululious, and then we take CREDIT.
Another way of looking at this trajectory of responsibility divestment is that by the time our kids are adults, possibly with children of their own, they’ve defined themselves by making many mistakes and having many triumphs, and we are developing dementia. Because we humans tend to forget things were ever different from how they seem in the present, we feel we have no influence on them anymore and that, therefore, we never did. Neither of which is true, as anyone who has spent any time in psychotherapy will know. We did influence them, and we still do. Their eyes are always on us. But the enormity of responsibility for how a person grows up to interact in the world is much easier, perhaps, to disavow than to accept. Which is fine, Grandparents, if you must. You may wash your hands of our stupid choices. But then you aren’t allowed to take credit for our successes, either. And that extends to the offspring of those children you feel you had no ability to influence. And our eyes are on you.
For some reason, I am recalling that when the 9th grader was two, she became obsessed with dressing herself. And undressing herself. And re-dressing herself. Her room was a shambles, with everything always spilling out of the dresser and onto the floor. Needless to say, her outfits were not exactly matchy-matchy Garanimals. That didn’t bother me, actually. I’m not into matchy-matchy. But I didn’t want her wearing bathing suits or party dresses to school. Her very wise Toddler Time teacher suggested I designate one or two drawers of her dresser into which I was to place several outfits appropriate to the season, which she was allowed to wear in any combination she chose. I could rotate these outfits as needed. So, freedom to choose, but limited freedom. Parameters. It worked like a charm. Stripes and florals, skirts over pants, whatever. I didn’t care. In fact, I liked it. Eliminated some of the mess and all of the power struggle.
What does this have to do with the reader who responded that he felt it would have been useless to tell his daughter she could do anything she wanted to, because he knew it was untrue, and she would have known he knew it, too? He went on to explain that there were too many random factors at work in determining what a person could be; ultimately, he said, citing Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, success depends about 30 percent on ability and 70 percent on chance. This is a pretty bleak outlook, in some ways. It’s tempting to say, why bother trying, then? And yet, because I am not yet old, I persist.
I guess the connection is this: that we all operate within constraints, and yet those constraints can be the mold for our creativity and for our sense of autonomy. None of us can control the external world, but we can still learn agency from within that constraint. The point is not to say that the world is going to throw you curveballs, so you’d better spend your life ducking. The point is not to say that you must wear a red shirt with your blue pants, or else. The point is to say that given the need to wear clothes and your parent’s need for some kind of order, your choice is limited by circumstances, but within those limitations you can create your own outfit. Similarly, teaching your child that she can do whatever she wants allows her to stretch. The world may – will – prevent or hinder or complicate circumstances, but the child who believes she can do, will do what she can with what life hands her. Goals may need altering, but the can-do child will accommodate that. That’s better than not trying stuff in anticipation of chance working against her. Besides, hard work and creativity may alter goals and circumstances in positive ways.
Sonnets. Villanelles. Sestinas. Sometimes restrictions are liberating. Look at it this way. By frustrating your young child’s desire to do whatever he wants (wear a bathing suit to school in winter in Albany, NY, say) yet giving him some choices, you teach many lessons. One is that the world will not always bend to his wishes. Would you not say that is a useful lesson? Another is that he still has some control over himself and his person. Is that not also useful? And a final one is that there is satisfaction from working within constraints. Again, useful. It teaches him he can do anything he wants to do. In this case, he wants to pick his own outfit. It also teaches him to modify his goal to accommodate his limits - to revise what he wants to do, if necessity forces him to. And that, I think, is the way of the world. Success is determined by how fully you express yourself within your limits.
Faber and Mazlich, How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen & Listen So They Will Talk
Ginott, Between Parent and Child
Halvorsen, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals
Levine, Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success
Mogel, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee