Children are tricky little creatures.
They aren't born with user manuals because every newborn is unique. It's easy to get buried under thousands of child-rearing books in search of the One True Way, but the truth is, there isn't one true way (but you already know that.)
So here, instead, are 18 amazing, thoughtful, and scientifically-based strategies employed by parents like you, who strive to prepare their kids for the real world.
Check out the infographic, and then read about each hack in more depth below.
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THE IMPORTANCE OF GRIT
1. Emphasize the process over the end result
A groundbreaking study published in 2007 showed that students who believed intelligence is a malleable thing—that is, it can be worked for—did better academically than those who believed that intelligence is fixed.
A child's mindset is a powerful thing.
If a child with a "fixed" mindset finds elementary math simple because he's talented, then he may balk when later faced with increasingly abstract mathematical concepts. If his talent has failed, what use is there in continuing to try?
But for a child with a "malleable" mindset, who believes that understanding any subject comes primarily through effort and practice, then any failure is but a small stumble on the way to mastery.
Rather than telling your children that they're "a natural" at something, praise the determination your kids put into getting better at it. Rather than solely emphasizing the rewards for achievement, focus on primarily praising the effort shown en route towards that goal.
Below is a great TED video on the importance of grit and the quest to teach kids this vital skill.
2. Advocate the three P's
What are the specific qualities that parents need to nurture in their children when they're praising effort rather than result? According to many scientists, practice, patience and perseverance are the keys to intellectual growth and lifelong success.
- Patience. At the heart of patience is self-regulation. A child who learns to control her own impulses is better able to stay on task and see past the frustration of the moment.
- Persistence. At the heart of persistence is the ability to set goals, think long-term, and be willing to follow through.
- Practice. At the heart of practice is accepting the idea that success comes in small steps, taken faithfully to master a task.
It isn't easy (what parenting skill is?), but “grit” can be taught, though it may take some grit on the parents' part as well.
Below is an interesting video that looks at how at a chess teacher's unique strategy and the way she approaches failure with her students have helped them go on to win chess championships all across the US.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INDEPENDENCE
3. Let your kids be bored
Children spend their entire academic year under the tyranny of class schedules, homework, projects, and the demands of athletics or other extracurricular activities, yet within a week or two of summer break they're whining "I'm bored!"
Could it be that they've become so used to having their days ordered by other people that they haven't yet learned the joys and benefits of quiet, contemplative time?
Parents need to understand that being bored can be good for children. Unstructured time nudges kids and adults to entertain themselves, which means they'll be motivated to seek out the people, projects, and games that give them joy.
Even psychologists recommend that children be bored in the summer. A little navel-gazing can reveal true, unique passions, and require them to develop some motivation, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Furthermore, quiet contemplation is a fabulous way for children (and adults) to learn to live calm and healthy in the here-and-now.
So before you succumb to their complaints and start hauling them to playdates, zoos, museums, or events, consider letting them do absolutely nothing. You may be surprised at what they come up with.
4. Give them time for free play
Conventional wisdom would suggest that your child's brain develops more when he's laboring over multiplication tables than when he's frolicking during recess, but scientists have determined quite the opposite.
For young children, time spent with peers on the playground actually causes more neurological changes in the prefrontal cortex than hours spent in front of a blackboard.
Learning how to make friends, settle disputes, act respectfully, and handle bullies are vital steps to any child's social maturation. Free play sets children loose of intense adult oversight, requiring them to make their own decisions about what to do, what to focus on, and how to control their impulses in order to follow through on chosen goals.
These qualities—focus, decision-making, prioritizing, and goal-setting—are what psychologists and educators call executive functions, vital to lifelong success.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DISCIPLINE
5. Discipline with empathy
Children are going to behave badly.
Sometimes they'll do so because they haven't yet learned the appropriate way to ask for what they want (whining), or how to express their feelings (tantrums), or how to effectively gauge risk-and-reward (teenagers). Yet the rules, limits, and standards you set exist for their long-term benefit. Those rules are no good if they're not enforced, yet they can inspire rebellion if they're not enforced with empathy.
Psychologist Erica Reischer says that “empathy is the single most powerful tool that all parents have.” It takes a while for children to understand the wild flux of their emotions, and still longer to be able to control those feelings. A parent's job is express understanding and offer up coping skills.
Empathic discipline means:
- Setting and enforcing boundaries consistently
- Imposing the consequences of a child's actions while accepting and acknowledging the visceral emotions that caused the misbehavior
- Making a distinction between the unacceptable behavior of, and your unconditional love for, the child
The video below offers examples and advice on how to use empathy when disciplining your child.
6. Remember that a child's brain works differently
Scientists say that the brain isn’t fully developed until about the age of 25. Most of the later development is due to changes in the pre-frontal cortex that turn risk-taking teens into adults who are better able to make risk-and-reward judgments. Yet at every stage, a child's mind is a work-in-progress.
Great parents understand the general sequence of developmental milestones and are patient and kind as a child struggles through them. Tantrums are usually a sign of an as-of-yet underdeveloped ability to exert self-control, not a targeted way to embarrass a parent in public.
Great parents nurture compassion about a child's particular mental challenges and, in the moment, take into account the effect of hormones, hunger, and temperament on behavior.
In essence, all learning happens best through loving, understanding relationships. Knowing and respecting a child's developmental stage goes a long way toward building trust and acceptance.
7. Help them recognize feelings and choose actions
For young children, the first step towards emotional intelligence is recognizing their own feelings and being able to modulate them appropriately.
Feelings are visceral, evolutionary warning flags that are meant to mark significant events and spur us into action. That's why a child might bite a schoolmate on the playground, hit his parents, or launch into a full-blown tantrum.
A parent can help a child identify and express emotions by:
- Acknowledging their emotions
- Giving those emotions a name
- Helping them identify what triggered the emotion
- Offering coping mechanisms, like time-outs to cool down, deep breathing, physical exercise
- Making clear what reaction behaviors are unacceptable
Learning to recognize, identify, and modulate emotions and reactions is a vital developmental stage not just for young children, but also for teenagers under the influence of very powerful, fluxing hormones.
8. Set limits with respect, not criticism
Nobody said that being a parent would be easy, but it's likely that no one told you how often you'd reach your limit.
It is exactly at those crucial moments that you need to be most rational, calm, and restrained when it comes to speaking or disciplining your children. Successful parents let their child-rearing genius kick in for these moments, so they don't allow extremes of behavior or a really bad day interfere with good parenting.
To set limits and enforce them with respect, experts recommend these tips:
- Put all attention fully on your child
- Gain control of your own emotions and body language so as to minimize telegraphing your anger or frustration through voice or body language
- Crouch down to eye-level, so you're not a looming over them
- Speak in a calm, steady voice
- Use plain, direct language at a level they can fully understand
- Don't use bad language or criticize them directly
- Acknowledge their feelings, and maybe even yours
- Focus on the rule they broke and state the consequences
- Expect and accept an emotional reaction from them
- Be prepared to remove your child from the situation if necessary
- Be firm and follow through
It's important to communicate limits in a way that is firm but also respectful, and speak to your kids how you'd like to be spoken to.
9. Harness the power of natural consequences
As a parent, you've spent many hours chasing after your unsteady toddler, ready to pick her up if she stumbles or falls.
But other than saving your kids from physical harm, you may want to allow natural consequences of behavior to work their own magic without your intervention. Nothing teaches a child not to lose his coat again than being forced to stay inside while his friends frolic in the snow.
This powerful parenting hack can also cut off power struggles before they begin.
Once the consequences of behavior have been made perfectly clear, those consequences become a direct result of a child's own personal choice. They key is to follow through.
If your daughter skips a chore, then dock her allowance if that's the stated punishment. If your son forgets his homework again, let him sit through a detention rather than run the papers to school for him.
Experience is a far better teacher than nagging.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CHARACTER
10. Nurture emotional intelligence
Scientists have identified parallels between emotional intelligence and cognitive development in children. The ability to build better relationships and understand opposing points of view allows for better communities as well as better academic outlooks.
Research has even shown that young people with high emotional intelligence quotients get better grades, stay in school and make healthier choices.
Some experts believe that EQ is a better predictor of future success in life than IQ.
- The ability to identify, understand, and label one's own emotions
- The ability to modulate those emotions and control our reactions to them
- The ability to identify and understand the emotions of others
- The ability to negotiate social interactions
- The ability to weigh and measure the relative importance of issues in any given situation
Parents who want to prepare their kids for the world may choose books, films, and other stories that illustrate what it feels like to be someone different. They'll role-play social situations to better prepare them on the playground.
Most of all, they'll strive to be the better people they want their own children to be.
Below is a short clip of an interview with Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and the author of the award-winning book Emotional Intelligence, speaking about the importance of EQ, also called social-emotional learning.
11. Teach your kids the world doesn't revolve around them
It's a sad, scientific fact that American college students today are considerably less empathic than those of a generation ago.
The researchers of the study contribute the shift to overscheduled lives, the compulsion to succeed academically, and even a turn towards screen socialization rather than face-to-face socialization.
Complicate that lowering of empathy with the fact that we, in general, live in a time of greater abundance than ever. Mostly, our children get whatever they want.
Obsessively child-centered households give rise to helpless young adults and helicopter parenting. Children who are spoiled and coddled get an unpleasant reality check once they’re out on their own.
Prepare your kids for the inevitable by teaching self-sufficiency and responsibility by:
- Encouraging them to tackle age-appropriate tasks and responsibilities on their own
- Requiring them to be invested in the running of the household by giving them developmentally-appropriate chores
- Teaching them the value of money by requiring them to earn extra, perhaps through additional chores, to help pay for something they want
- Allowing them the power of choice in age-appropriate matters that affect them, such as whether to have a turkey sandwich or a bagel for lunch or to try out for baseball or tennis
Interestingly, chores are considered one of the leading predictors of future success. They teach empathy, self-reliance and responsibility and help prepare kids for the real world.
12. Live your own life
Child-rearing is a monumental task that can easily consume even the busiest of parents.
For many adults, child-rearing stirs up a whole lot of strong and suppressed feelings. A parent who was deprived of love, affection, or resources as a child can easily be overwhelmed with the need to do differently for her own offspring.
It's never healthy to have your life swallowed up by another, even if you're doing it willingly.
Yes, parenthood is a 24/7 responsibility. But wise parents, in search of a healthy balance, make an effort to carve out an identity outside that of their children.
In fact, scientific research shows great advantages for both parents and children when parents maintain interests in the greater world. By showing your children how adults can enjoy varied lives, parents are modeling a rich and satisfying version of adulthood.
13. Work towards shaping their heart, not just their behavior
Every educator loves a quiet, focused, well-behaved child in the classroom, but parents must understand that striving for that ideal is not the only goal of child-rearing.
Enforcing good behavior is vital, but so is shaping a child's heart so that positive behavior is embraced from within.
Many experts have tried to identify the core qualities that contribute to a happy, healthy life. Some of these include:
It's no surprise that many of these traits arise from empathy, gratefulness, and emotional intelligence, all qualities that will lead them to happy, productive lives.
14. Teach your children gratitude
Those of us who live in developed countries generally enjoy the highest quality of life in the world.
Our houses are warm, our closets are full, our dinner plates are rarely empty, and we may enjoy many a perk that's unattainable elsewhere, such as cars, televisions, cell phones and computers.
Growing up amid such abundance, it's easy to take for granted that there will always be gifts under the Christmas tree—and not notice that, for many others and through no fault of their own, such abundance is not the case.
Techniques for teaching gratitude in your children include:
- Teach them that saying "thank you" is not just a social construct, but a way to show gratitude for kindness, both big and small
- Be an example of gratitude in your own life
- Be a grateful optimist by stating your blessings and looking for a silver lining in bad situations
According to this video from the Wall Street Journal, research shows that kids who practice gratitude are more likely to excel at school and less prone to depression and envy, and have a more positive outlook on life in general.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRESENCE
15. Communicate unconditional love
All parents want their children to succeed in the world.
In this country and in many others, tremendous amounts of time and money are invested to provide all the benefits possible towards that goal.
It's so easy for a parent to get wrapped up in that effort and subtly give the impression that what matters most are the trophies, awards, and honor roll mentions—the achievements, rather than the child herself.
According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, of 9,000 children studied, those that were shown unconditional love were the happiest. Such children had lower rates of obesity, anxiety, and stress. They also had stronger, more affectionate bonds with their parents and even better chemistry in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that regulates memory, stress response, and some learning capabilities.
Parents must communicate the message that their kids are wonderful just as they are, with all their quirks and flaws, with unconditional affection.
The fantastic video below explores the importance of unconditional love for a child's future happiness and success.
16. Be fully present
There's an old saying about the exuberance and exhaustion of family life that the days are long but the years are short. There's a reason why multitasking is a word born of the computer age. So wrapped up in the business of running a household, raising kids, and working to pay for it all, many parents spend their days in a breathless rush.
And yet when it comes to raising children, psychologists say that one of the most important things children need from their parents is emotional availability. Being fully present, mentally and emotionally lets a child know that she's important, valued, and respected.
Successful parents put away their devices and stop multitasking often and without hesitation.
They hug their child, make eye contact, ask questions, and most importantly, listen and engage in a meaningful way.
Below is an excellent, short video about the benefits—for both children and parents—of positive parenting, being present with your child, and truly communicating and bonding with them.
17. Take advantage of teachable moments
Chances are that you remember one event, maybe even two, when your parents took you aside and taught you a valuable lesson about gratitude, empathy, responsibility, self-respect, or some other moral lesson.
Yet for every one of those memorable moments, there remain a thousand that are lost to time. This accumulation of smaller, subtle lessons has a big, long-term effect. That's the value of teachable moments.
A teachable moment occurs when you find yourself—often suddenly and unexpectedly—in a situation rife with moral implications. Did your toddler tuck a grocery store candy bar in her stroller while you were busy counting change? Your five-year-old is watching: What to do next? Did you break a teacup at a neighbor's house? How will you react?
Prepare your kids for the would by being alert to recognizing teachable moments, and leveraging them to teach morals and important life lessons.
18. Remember that actions speak louder than words
Children are always watching. Mostly, they're watching their parents, who are the ultimate role models.
Though unnerving, parents must learn to come to terms with the idea that they are examples for their children, even with all their natural imperfections.
This concept goes beyond keeping promises. It's a way to raise responsible kids by exhibiting behaviors like:
- Healthy eating habits
- Treating others with respect
- Taking care of your responsibilities
- Admitting when you've made a mistake
- Calm conflict resolution
- Good manners
By modeling these qualities rather than just talking about them, you become an example for children in what would be called, in a more genteel time, "good character".
Employing even just some of these hacks may seem overwhelming for even the most determined of parents.
The truth is that you don't have to be perfect. You just have to be loving.
Parents who best prepare their kids for the real world are the ones who keep learning, adapting, and trying, every single day.