Now that my kids are grown adults, I feel more comfortable teaching both parents and faculty the art of leading young people into healthy maturity. Like many parents, my experience raising my first child enabled me to relax a bit on my second child. We tend to obsess at the tiniest quirk in our first baby, and by child number three, we’re not as stressed. In fact, I just read this sequence and chuckled at its familiarity:
- First child eats dirt. Parent calls the doctor immediately.
- Second child eats dirt. Parent cleans out his mouth.
- Third child eats dirt. Parents wonder if they really need to feed him lunch.
After careful reflection and gathering data, I now offer some recommendations on some common parental or faculty behaviors we must replace. I learned these over the years and these shifts have made all the difference in the world as I lead students.
1. Motivation: We must replace FEAR with WISDOM.
Our generation of parents are riddled with fear. We’re scared our kids won’t make the honor roll; they’ll get pregnant; they’ll get abducted, you name it. Even though research shows that “stranger abduction” only represents one-hundredth of one percent of all missing children, we fret like it happens in our town every day. School shootings scare us into keeping our kids close and in view at all times. Imagine the message this sends to our young: The world is evil! Don’t take any risks. Never trust anyone. It’s enough to produce the most anxious population of American teens to date. So here’s my question: what if we replaced motivating kids with feelings of fear with encouraging them by using words of wisdom. Simply offering logical wisdom for each decision completely reframes their attitude and stifles their inner fear. Let’s be rational, not emotional.
Fear-based Parent: You can’t walk to the mall! The traffic is horrible; you might get hit by a car and killed!
Wisdom-based Parent: You can walk to the mall if you’re with Ben or Collin. Be sure to look both ways before crossing the street. Text me when you get there.
2. Evaluation: We must replace a focus on GRADES with a focus on GROWTH.
I changed the way I spoke to my kids about their report cards when my daughter turned 12. Prior to that time, I was like most parents. If she made three A’s, two B’s and a D . . . I focused on the D. I talked to her about her weaknesses. It was not fun. Once I began gazing at her high grades and talking about what she liked about those classes, we both had a better attitude with which to conquer the D. Too often, we’re misguided and create stress in our children. We measure the wrong things. Our focus should be on strengths, not struggles: where are they growing and thriving? This is where they’ll likely spend time in their careers. Let’s obsess over growth, not grades.
Grade-obsessed Parent: Why didn’t you make all A’s? What’s this C doing on your report card? You’re not going to get that scholarship!
Growth-obsessed Parent: Let’s explore the subjects where you were strong. Wow—look how you’ve grown! I love how you’ve improved in science.
3. Schedules: We must replace CLUTTER with SIMPLICITY.
According to Dr. Robert Leahy, the average teen today has the same level of anxiety as a psychiatric patient did in the early 1950s. Stress levels have continued to climb for more than seventy years. This is absurd. Part of our problem is the complications we face daily. Noise. Screens. Busyness. Information. Pings. I believe humans are not hardwired to consume the volume of data we do each day. We need margins for our mental and emotional health. What if you became more intentional about clearing the calendar and creating space for unsupervised play or relaxation? What if you made your students choose one or two activities and not do them all? Research tells us that when our days have margins we actually develop empathy and creativity.
Cluttered-life Parent: Quick, suit up or we’ll be late for your soccer practice, piano lesson and karate match. Hurry, we don’t have time to mess around.
Simplified-life Parent: Let’s plan to participate in just one extra-curricular activity this fall. It will leave time for family, house chores and unscheduled fun.
4. Identity: We must replace UNCONTROLLABLES with CONTROLLABLES.
Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck taught me this. In her book, Mindset, she suggests we naturally tend to have a “fixed mindset.” We assume if we make a bad grade in math, we’re just not good at math. It’s a fixed fact. Or, we just aren’t good readers, or good communicators. She says we must cultivate a “growth mindset” in our students. We must treat our brains like a muscle that can grow. Then, parents and instructors must focus on encouraging variables that are in their control, not out of their control. Instead of flattering them for their beauty, we affirm their integrity, which is much more in their control. When we encourage controllable qualities, we empower our young to grow and encourage good priorities. What gets rewarded gets repeated.
Fixed-mindset Parent: You’re just not good at math; you just aren’t a natural student. Your sister is the smart one in the family.
Growth-mindset Parent: You may not be good at math . . . yet, but one day you will be. And I do appreciate your honesty and I love the empathy you show your friends.
5. Feedback: We must replace emphasizing BEHAVIOR with emphasizing BELIEF.
I recently met with a focus group of parents. While they were all very engaged in their role as moms and dads, one reality surfaced that surprised me. It was the level of anger they expressed toward their kids—short tempers, bursts of emotion, sometimes loud yelling. This tends to equate to punishing our children when they misbehave instead of disciplining them. We look backward and retaliate instead of looking forward and incentivizing better behavior. When offering feedback, my kids respond far better when I speak from “belief” in them. This means I convey the thought: “I know you’re better than what you just did.” When I correct students because I’m convinced they’re capable of more, I call out the best in them, rather than the worst. Too many kids are fragile and need us to get this one right.
Behavior-based Parent: I can’t believe you did that. What is wrong with you? You never get that task right!
Belief-based Parent: I’m giving you this feedback because I know you’re capable of exceeding my expectations. I’ve seen what you can do.