We want our children to be successful as possible--maybe even more successful than we are ourselves. And so we push them to give them the motivation and self-discipline that we know is a key to getting ahead.
This may seem like a logical approach, but it's all wrong, according to Emma M. Seppälä Ph.D., a Stanford psychologist and author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. In a thought-provoking piece on the Psychology Today website, she explores some bad advice parents typically give their children while trying to set them up for success in life and which may produce the opposite of the desired effect. You can find the full list here. Here are some of the most common:
1. "Stay focused on your goals."
Back in the 1970s, a famous experiment involving small children and marshmallows proved the importance of being able to delay gratification. As the years went by and researchers followed their subjects, they learned that children who were able to resist the urge to eat a marshmallow right away (thus earning an extra one later) did better in every facet of life than their more impulsive peers.
So it might seem logical to encourage your children to put off immediate pleasures and stay focused on their long-term goals, such as graduating from high school with honors or getting into their top choice of college. The problem with this, Seppälä writes, is that no one can really stay focused on the future--our minds tend to wander. If our children try to stay focused on their goals all the time, they may be "prone to greater anxiety and fear."
Instead, she says, we should encourage kids to live in the present moment. Staying in the present tends to make people happier, one reason why meditation is such an effective way to decrease stress and improve your mood. And though it may be counterintuitive, a happier child is likely to perform better and thus be more successful than one who's always wound tight thinking about how to reach ambitious goals.
2. "Stop wasting time."
Children have only a few short years of schooling before it's time to leave for college and start working toward their careers. Many parents want to make the best possible use of that time by encouraging their children to not onl excel at their schoolwork, but also take advantage of extra-curricular activities such as sports and music and volunteering, and perhaps engaging in an early job or entrepreneurial activity.
All that stuff is great, of course, but it leaves too many kids with too little "air" in their schedules. That's bad, Seppälä warns. While it's great for kids to stretch themselves and have as many learning experiences as possible, too much can drain their mental, emotional, and physical energy, leaving them depleted.
Instead, she says, make sure to give your kids a healthy amount of free time tha they can fill as they wish with play or relaxation. "They may choose calming activities like reading a book, taking the dog for a walk, or simply lying under a tree and staring up at the clouds--all of which will allow them to approach the rest of their lives from a more centered, peaceful place," she writes.
It will also make them more creative. Research shows that people have their greatest moments of insight when their minds aren't focused on work--one reason great ideas often come to you during off times such as when you're working out or on vacation. Giving your kids some down time will allow them to tap into their own creativity in exactly the same way.
3. "Do what you're good at."
This is something just about all parents encourage their children to do. Your child has a voice like an angel? You'll sign him or her up for singing lessons and talent show auditions. If your child can jump higher than anyone else, you'll suggest trying out for basketball, and so on.
Of course, you do want to help your children develop their special talents. But be careful not to box them in--for instance by saying something like, 'You're a math person,' or 'You're a natural athlete,' Seppälä says. You could inadvertently send the message that they shouldn't try other things that they aren't naturally good at.
That would be a shame, because there are many benefits to trying to master things that you're bad at, that don't come naturally. One obvious one for a child or young person is learning how to fail, and try again. So, yes, encourage your children to do the things that they naturally do well. But encourage them to keep trying new activities and to challenge themselves by working on stuff that doesn't come naturally. Your kids will learn to be more resilient--and the more resilient they are, the more successful and happier they'll be.