Do you want your kids to grow up to be successful? Of course you do. So you send them to the best possible schools and pay close attention to make sure they're completing their homework, and you sign them up for lots of afterschool activities. You limit how much time they spend watching TV or playing video games. You make sure they get plenty of fresh air and exercise. You feed them only healthy, organic food. You make sure they feel loved and protected, and you encourage them to dream big and believe in themselves.
But do all that, and you could still be missing the most important thing you should do to help your kids grow up to have happy, successful lives: being a model yourself of what you want them to grow up and do.
That advice comes from Angela Duckworth, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, best-selling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and founder of Character Lab, which provides tools for teachers and parents to help children develop character and grit. "The most important thing parents can do, although it's not the only thing they should do, is model the behavior they want from their kids," Duckworth said during an interview at a recent Qualtrics Insight Summit.
This advice is borne out not only by research but by Duckworth's observations as the parent of two adolescent daughters herself. "There came a point in their development when they started saying things like, 'OK, Mom, I'm going out for a run,'" she recalls. "What? You're going out for a run?" Or they would complain about the absence of fruit at breakfast time, or they'd carefully plan out schedules for their weekend activities. "I thought to myself, 'Wow, they've become little versions of me, and also my husband,'" Duckworth recalls.
Show your love.
You can enhance the power of setting a good example, she discovered, after she started asking her daughters why they seemed to be imitating her and her husband. "We talk about psychology a lot, so they're unusually reflective, as you might guess," Duckworth says. "So when I asked, 'Why are you suddenly being me?' the answer I got was, 'Well, we like you.'"
Duckworth says there's a distinction between the unconscious mimicking we all do of those around us and the deliberate choice to try to be like someone we love and admire. Duckworth loves cooking shows, and she's a fan of the Netflix series Chef's Table. In the third season, the show follows Buddhist nun and renowned chef Jeong Kwan, who does her cooking at a Buddhist monastery in the mountains, where renowned chefs come to visit her and eat her food. In that episode, Kwan tells the story of how she first made noodles as a child. Kwan's mother asked how she learned to make noodles, and Kwan responded that she had learned by observing her mother do it. Then she said, "My mother put her hand on my shoulder, and when I felt her love, I wanted to be like her."
That sentence struck Duckworth powerfully and got her thinking about the difference between imitation, which might be unconscious, and emulation--the conscious choice to try to act like someone you love and admire. And so, she says, "my recommendation is to be a good model and to show your kids you care about them. And they will purposefully try to emulate the way you are."
Don't be a shield.
Duckworth adds one last caveat: "There is a danger of over-parenting and insulating kids from the consequences of their own actions, and not affording them the challenges they need. Track practice is Friday but there's a party. Too bad, you signed up for the season of track, and that is a commitment. Kids have to do things they don't want to do."
She recalls a headmaster she knew whose daughter was always late to class, knowing she wouldn't get in trouble. Then the girl got a job at a local clothing shop where the owner told her she should make sure not to be late. "If you're late, you're fired," he reportedly said. So the girl responded by setting herself not one but two alarms, and she arrived on time for her job every day without fail.
"Parents need to model the right behavior, show their kids they love them, and set their kids up for challenges, letting them experience the consequences--good and bad--of their actions," Duckworth says. Do all that, and you'll have done what you can to set your children on the path to success.