We know what they think of us. The world, that is. We live large. We have too much. A nation of extremes. We are obsessed with image. We take more than our fair share. We spew pollutants into the air, earth and water, with little care or concern for future inhabitants or anyone or anything beyond our borders. We’re greedy. We’re tiger moms and helicopter parents. Our kids are spoiled, fat, lazy, gamers. Affected by affluenza. Falling further behind in education.
In some ways and for some people, these things are no doubt true. But for a great many of us, we want to raise kids who will be educated, capable citizens, who will contribute to society and who will be happy, or at least, content. (Happiness cannot be under-rated, for happy people are, after all, less dangerous and more productive.)
It’s a big task. As parents, we work hard to meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of our children. We want to give our kids everything and every opportunity we didn’t have, but we also realize that kids who are given everything will accomplish nothing.
What should we focus on? What should we teach our children to help them succeed? In the fascinating article, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure,” researchers listed seven qualities that would predict “life satisfaction and high achievement” in our kids. They are: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, curiosity and optimism. Yes, math and science are important, but the traits they acquire that will inspire and help them learn are just as important.
It’s not easy to teach these intangible things. As parents, we have to learn or possess them, too. Take self-control, for example. To teach restraint, you have to model restraint. When I want to yell at my son for his smack-talking, I bite my tongue and take a couple of really, deep breaths. (Okay, and I think about shock collars and straight-jackets.) Sometimes I fail at modeling self-control. I can only hope that I did it mostly right, that my kids remember the good examples I set, the times when I said, “I’d like to have X, but I have to wait until I have enough saved.”
Most children are naturally curious, so our challenge is, how do we help them keep it? Wonder and inquisitiveness grow out of allowing our kids to explore their environments, to take things apart and to experience cause and effects. We don’t need to entertain them. Television is no substitute for doing, for real learning. It dulls the senses, makes minds receptacles for cultural trash. Boredom is our children’s friend, not enemy. It means kids have disposable time on their hands, something adults never have, that can be invested in a variety of ways from playing to creating.
By the time we get to the teenage years, however, we feel like we’ve run a marathon; we’re exhausted, ready to collapse, maybe even quit our kids. We hear these things: “I hate you.” “You are mean.” “You are the worst mom ever.” “I swear I’m never coming to visit you when I get older.”
Okay, maybe I just hear those things from my kid. And I feel as if I’ve done it all wrong. Yet maybe, just maybe these protests are signs of something else. I’m not giving in—or giving up. It means I’m sticking to something. I have grit. I’m holding my ground. There are times I think, WTF. In a couple of years, my kid will do whatever he wants anyway. It’s easier to say: no problem. Just do it. Leave me alone. It’s damn tiring to persevere. It wears you out to stand your ground day after day.
Yet being overly permissive and giving in to our kids is the easy way. That feeds the stereotype a lot of the world believes. Our kids are out of control. Ungrateful. Spoiled. Unappreciative. We’ve indulged them too much. Asked nothing of them. Compared to the rest of the world, our kids do have a lot.
But it doesn’t mean our kids will grow up unappreciative. This holiday season, as always, I will remind my children to show gratitude and write thank you notes. I will remind them that a Christmas gift is not a right or entitlement, that we don’t deserve anything. We keep nothing in this world. What we get, we will one day, sooner or later, give back. There are no exceptions.
The things we do outside the classroom—at home, day in and day out–the nagging, prodding, pushing and guiding our kids to develop character, not only help them in school but in life. We can help our kids acquire traits that will enable them to grow and to learn on their own, making self-education as important to traditional learning, traits that will help them achieve success, the above-mentioned zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, curiosity and optimism.
We are not simply stereotypes and statistics. If we failed today, we can hold on to the optimism that tomorrow will be better. That we and our children will be better. Because being a parent, like being a good citizen or student or human being, is always a work in progress.