As a parent, it's funny: You still have your own ambitions and dreams, but you find yourself subordinating your goals to try to ensure that your kids will be successful.
You're looking for the right habits. It's the point of my free ebook, How to Raise Successful Kids (now in its 7th edition), which you can download here, and it's been the subject of significant study at Harvard, Stanford, and other top universities.
Here are nine of the key choices their studies suggest parents need to make.
1. Choose to stay on top of them.
High on this list for a reason is the idea that kids who have success later in life have parents who stay on top of them. They remind them of their values and the things they do and don't want them to do. They nag, if you must use that term.
Researchers in Great Britain studied a cohort of 15,000 young women over a decade. They found that children whose parents had habitually reminded them of their high expectations for them were:
- less likely to be unemployed for long periods of time as adults;
- less likely to wind up working in low-wage, dead-end jobs that they hated;
- more likely to obtain a college education; and
- less likely to become pregnant while they're still teenagers.
As the researchers at the University of Essex in England put it: "Behind every successful woman is a nagging mom? Teenage girls more likely to succeed if they have pushy mothers."
The trick with this habit is that it takes years to pay off. It can be excruciating at times. Just remember that the science backs you up.
"No matter how hard we tried to avoid our parents' recommendations, it is likely that they ended up influencing [our] choices," writes study author Ericka G. Rascon-Ramirez.
2. Choose to encourage outside play.
For this study, researchers tracked 153 boys aged 6 to 8, and determined how much time they got to spend outside each day. The results were striking.
"The more time kids ... spent sitting and the less time they spent being physically active," the researchers found, "the fewer gains they made in reading in the two following years. [It] also had a negative impact on their ability to do math."
Of course, part of the lesson here is that kids in school should have sizable periods of recess each day.
Unfortunately, that's a difficult argument to make sometimes, given that teachers and school districts get graded on student performance, not recess.
3. Choose to read to them actively.
There's a difference between active reading and passive reading. You want to aim for the former as much as possible.
I get that when you're reading Make Way for Ducklings to your 3-year-old for the 50th time it might be a bit wearing to "do the voices," or ask her, "What do you think happens next?"
However, the more engaging and active you can make the experience, the better. For example, neuroscientist Erin Clabough says keeping it up can have big, positive repercussions.
"Even for books you've read together 216 times, your child can come up with a different way the character can react, a different decision the character can make," she said.
4. Choose to praise them the right way.
As the father to a preschooler, this one is on my mind all the time. It comes from Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck.
The goal is to praise children in a way that encourages them to develop a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset.
This means praising children for their effort, not their abilities. Some examples:
- Right way: "I am so impressed at how you stuck with that problem. You had to try 50 times. That's some amazing perseverence."
- Wrong way: "Wow, you did an amazing job with that problem. You're so smart. No wonder you were able to figure it out."
The research shows that this difference results in measurable change, even when we are talking about children as young as 1 to 3 years old.
5. Choose to make them do chores.
My preschooler loves helping out -- cracking eggs when we make breakfast in the morning, helping to do the dishes, and even rolling the garbage cans back after trash pickup.
The last one is hilarious to watch, as the garbage can (on wheels) is much bigger than she is.
But it's a wonderful thing, even if it sometimes reminds me of a military training axiom -- something about how it's better if the person you're training does something passably than if you step in and do it perfectly.
Former Stanford dean of freshman Julie Lythcott-Haims says in her observation that kids who did chores were more successful. And she cites the Harvard Grant Study, the famous 80-plus-year longitudinal study of health and happiness.
It found two keys that people need to be happy and successful in life: love and worth ethic.
"By making them do chores," Lythcott-Haims says, "they realize I have to do the work of life in order to be part of life. It's not just about me and what I need in this moment."
6. Choose to move.
I get that this one can be tough. There are financial constraints, the need to live close to work, desire to be near family and friends, and familiarity concerns.
But parents who want to give their kids an advantage over their peers will move to the best neighborhood they can possibly find.
The best schools, the best environment, the opportunity to grow up among the most privileged among us. It's why the wealthiest families, who can do whatever they want, tend to do this first.
"Buying a neighborhood is probably one of the most important things you can do for your kid," explains Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, who studied the issue.
7. Choose to model good relationships.
As we've seen, one of the biggest, longest, most-cited longitudinal studies in history, the Harvard Grant Study, says that two things are most important: love and work ethic.
We've already handled work ethic above. This part is about love. So as a parent, it's your job to model love.
I know that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. Many good parents were never married to begin with. But modeling the relationships you have -- with your partner, with your spouse, with your family, with your friends, with your neighbors -- is absolutely crucial.
"The lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder," says Robert Waldinger, current head of the study. "The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."
8. Choose to be a rock.
Quick dilemma, which I'll settle quickly. It's a perennial debate: Should you rush to your kids' aid when they suffer setbacks, or should you stand back and let them figure things out on their own?
This isn't even a close call, according to science. Run to their aid. It's not so much about solving particular problems for them as it is showing them that no matter what, under any circumstances, you'll be there for them.
"Parents who respond to their children's emotions in a comforting manner have kids who are more socially well-adjusted than do parents who either tell their kids they are overreacting or who punish their kids for getting upset," child psychologist Nancy Eisenberg of Arizona State University said in an interview.
9. Choose to be an advocate.
This is of a piece with choice No. 8, of course. Yes, you want your kids to learn to advocate for themselves, but at the same time, the practical application is that in schools and other bureaucracies, they need you to be their advocates.
Part of this conclusion comes from a 45-year longitudinal study called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth.
It found that teachers are predisposed to ignore both students who do well and those who do poorly, in favor of those who are simply average.
It all comes from the incorrect assumption that gifted students will achieve on their own--even in spite of a strict educational system that doesn't serve them well.
The only way around this is parents who advocate for their kids to the teachers.