Be careful what you wish for as a parent
By Michael Grose
The focus on success and achievement doesn’t have to come at the expense of our children’s empathy and wellbeing.
What would you wish for? A caring child or a successful child?
If pressed to choose, which would you prefer?
In a fascinating Harvard study referred to in a recent Age article, 10,000 kids were asked whether achievement and success, rather than caring for others, were their parents’ main priorities. The kids overwhelmingly said their parents opted for success rather than caring.
I suspect Australian kids would come up with a similar response if asked. In my work with parents and schools over nearly 40 years I’ve never seen the educational and parenting landscape so competitive as it is today. The standard belief of ‘Everyone can get ahead and be successful’ has been replaced by ‘my child needs to get ahead and be successful.’
We can have both
This is a controversial view based on the assumption that you can have either successful kids or caring kids. I believe you can have both. Parents and teachers can encourage kids to achieve, but also emphasise the importance of looking out for your mates, and taking care of others. Individual success doesn’t have to come at the expense of well-being and the success of others. It does mean that we need to put caring for others firmly on our parenting agendas.
Here are three ways to do this:
1. Develop a language for caring
Parents invariably develop a deep language around the things they value. If caring is important then you need to develop language for caring (look after your brother; do the right thing; do unto others) just as you have probably developed a language around success (persist, work hard, do your best).
2. Focus on co-operation rather than competition
It’s easy to develop competition between kids. As a parent all you need to do is praise one child and criticise another and you’ve established the conditions for competition. It’s far harder to develop cooperative behaviours, but it’s worth the effort. Encourage kids to help each other; ask them to do jobs in pairs so they learn to work together; and teach older children to give way to younger children rather than always have their own way. Caring kids learn that not everything goes their way and that they need to compromise and give way to others in the name of being social and getting on.
3. Pay attention to children’s emotions
Now more than ever it’s important for parents to be attentive to children’s emotional lives, and also to develop an awareness of their own feelings and the feelings of others. Empathetic kids rarely use power and bullying to get their own way. Empathy always starts with an awareness of a child’s own emotional state.
As parents we want our kids to grow up to be successful and achieve their full potential. It’s the default position for most parents. But that doesn’t have to come at the expense of caring for others. In these times of small families and a more competitive landscape parents need to work harder than ever to develop nurturance, caring and respect for others in kids.