They say death and taxes are the only certainties in this life, but those of us with kids know there's another truth that transcends place, time, and circumstance: No matter who you are or where you live, raising happy, successful kids is hard. Yet some parents seem to manage the inevitable difficulties with grace.

How do they do that? And can those who come to great parenting less naturally (or with a ton more anxiety and self-doubt) learn their secrets?

That's what Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson and award-winning journalist Tatsha Robertson wanted to know when they set out to write their new book, The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children. To figure out the answer, they interviewed 200 successful adults and their parents to identify commonalities in how these kids were raised.

Lo and behold, a pattern emerged. Each of these high functioning, fully realized adults had parents who performed the same eight roles for them as kids. The prayers of many confused parents appear to be answered: There is a formula to raising successful kids.

And it can be learned. "Can you teach a parent to be strategic? The answer is a resounding yes," says Robertson.

So what are these essential roles? I combed podcast and print interviews with the authors to get a rough sense of all eight:

1. The Early Learning Partner

Right from the beginning, parents who raise successful kids show their children that learning is a fun and essential part of life. In nearly every family the authors studied, "the parent has spent a lot of time before the child started school, basically beginning from birth, interacting with the child, playing games, doing things that the child perceived as fun, but that were building a love of learning and a love of problem solving," notes Ferguson.

Nothing fancy is required. Simply building with blocks and telling stories together are examples of playing this role for your child.

2. The Flight Engineer

"Helicopter" or "snow plow" parents who remove all obstacles from their kids' paths rightfully catch a lot of flak these days, but according to Ferguson and Robertson great parents do ensure their kids have the opportunities they need to thrive (though they presumably allow them to walk--or stumble--through those doors themselves).

"The flight engineer stays tuned in to what's happening, typically at school, and most of this is from a distance," says Ferguson, "but if something starts to go off track, the flight engineer quickly gets involved.... The flight engineer just helps to ensure the world is serving their child well."

3. The Fixer

Great parents "make great sacrifices just to be sure that, particularly in areas their kids were interested in, that the door to opportunity stayed open, even if the parent had to find an ally to help fill in the missing piece," Ferguson explains, citing one mother who actually sold her wedding ring to buy her daughter a flute.

4. The Revealer

"The revealer exposes the child to the richness of life, lets the child know the world is a lot bigger than our neighborhood," says Ferguson. 

5. The Philosopher

"In the first five years, what I call the role of the 'philosopher' is getting started sometimes, where the child is asking questions and the parent will give very thoughtful answers. Sometimes it's a question like: Why do people die? It's responding to the child in ways that support the child's thinking," Ferguson explains in another interview.

6. The Model

"The model is the parent who can conduct themselves in a way that the child views them worthy of emulation, and particular aspects of how the parent carries themselves, how they relate to other people, or how they persist or are relentless when they are pursuing their own goals. The child says, 'I want to be like that,'" says Ferguson.

Sometimes the model can be another family member, like a grandparent. 

7. The Negotiator

In the role of the negotiator, parents hash out deals with the kids and hold them to those bargains so they learn to advocate for themselves and exercise self-control. "Once the choice is made, sticking with it for a while becomes a non-negotiable requirement. The child isn't allowed to go back on the agreement," write Robertson and Ferguson.

8. The GPS Navigational Voice.

This may well be your most lasting role as a parent. "[It's] the parent in the child's head after the parent is no longer around--after the child has gone off into the world--and all of the lessons from the earlier roles are resonating," Ferguson explains.

For much more on how you can play these roles yourself, pick up Ferguson and Robertson's book.

Published on: Mar 26, 2019
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