Of course, we want to do all that we can for our kids to help them succeed--keep an eye on them (even using technology if it helps), keep them from being perfectionists, monitor their unproductive habits.
But what's the best way to help them help themselves when it comes to doing well in school? Science lends a hand.
Many would jump to the conclusion that academic excellence is bolstered by self-esteem, which can certainly help. But there's a dark side to focusing solely on helping your child boost his or her self-esteem (as you'll see in a second).
The better way forward? Focus on teaching your child self-compassion.
University of Texas psychology professor Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, told KQED that self-esteem is about value:
Self-esteem is a judgment about how valuable I am: very valuable, not so good, not valuable at all. In contrast, self-compassion isn't about self-evaluation at all. It's about being kind to oneself. Self-compassion is a healthy source of self-worth because it's not contingent and it's unconditional. It's much more stable over time because it's not dependent on external markers of success such as grades.
So am I saying we should teach children to not care about grades? Not at all. It's a matter of whether your child sees grades as the ultimate end goal or a positive side effect of embracing the learning process.
Neff says most of us motivate ourselves through self-criticism. Your child is aware of the consequences of failing that test. But the side effects of this approach are perfectionism, a fear of failure, and even procrastination because the fear of not measuring up can be paralyzing.
Neff's research shows that focusing instead on self-compassion shifts how your child self-motivates. Since the direct end-goal is not as much about achievement (grades, becoming class president), it encourages students to experiment, take risks, try new approaches, and to keep going after making a mistake (rather than feeling defeated by it). In this way, behavior is motivated by the pursuit of a passion (learning and growing), not avoidance of a negative (fear).
In the end, a healthier source of academic motivation can lead to better end goals on many fronts--yes, even grades.
The approach applies to entrepreneurs too, by the way. I've found that not worrying about failing (and the consequences of failing) in my entrepreneurial ventures has freed me up to be more creative and take more risks. Thus, I'm producing better output that's helping me outpace my business goals anyway.
But back to us as parents. Here's how parents can help their kids be self-compassionate:
1. Encourage them to support themselves as they would a friend.
If a friend came to you after he blew a big meeting, would you say, "I've listened to your story and considered the facts. I've concluded you are indeed a loser"?
Of course not.
So why would you do that to yourself? Why would your child? Help them practice this, especially in the moments when their disempowering self-dialogue is kicking in. I've personally found this to be powerful guidance to share with children, co-workers, and friends.
2. Watch your language.
It's easy, and very natural, to bark at your children when they bring home a bad grade. I have to resist this temptation myself. But Neff reminds us that doing so can be taken as judgment of their intelligence--and no good can come from that.
In such moments, it's important to help them see that bad grade as a learning moment and to help them kick it into action-mode. What needs to change to achieve a better outcome? What have you learned from this?
3. When you mess up, fess up.
This is your chance to role model discussion around the inevitability of mistakes. When you make a mistake, share the experience with your children and talk about the simple truth that mistakes will happen. It's about how you pick up and carry on. Show them that you can cut shame off at the knees.
4. Hand on heart, deep breaths.
Neff also teaches that kids can quickly spiral downward immediately after experiencing a setback. She encourages teaching children to place their hand on their heart and take deep breaths in stressful times to trigger the power of touch and help release oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel safe and connected.
Academic excellence is plenty reason to pursue all of this advice. But Neff says it's a gift that parents can give themselves as well: "Self-compassion is a way of re-parenting yourself. If you grew up with really critical parents, it's a chance to treat yourself like an unconditionally loving, supportive parent."
So have compassion for self-compassion--there's something in it for everybody.