Character Study: Raising Successful Children
By Desmond T. Burke, Deputy Head - Student Life
Posted December 16, 2010
As an English teacher, I have been left these last few years with the sense that I’ve been living through a re-enactment of The Great Gatsby. There are so many parallels between our time and the Roaring Twenties, with its incredible material wealth and decadent popular culture. While we don’t live in an age of bootleggers like Gatsby or outlaw bank robbers like Bonnie and Clyde, we have witnessed the public prosecution of many white-collar criminals who have demonstrated a particularly egregious type of greed and selfishness that knows no limits. Extreme individualism and selfishness can seem at times the most prominent personal characteristics of the day.
It’s a worrisome and challenging time for bringing children into the world. There are popular distractions that can seem purposefully arrayed against the values that most parents hold dear. While “success” may mean different things to all of us, we probably all share the hope that we are preparing our children to survive on their own, that they will be good people and that they will be happy.
So how do parents produce successful children? Our broader popular culture seems to convey the unhealthy idea that material possessions are the ultimate measure of success and happiness. The writing on parenting for the last twenty years has not served parents well, either: its wrong-headed emphasis on self-
esteem has unfortunately convinced many young people that they are the centre of the universe. Further exacerbating parents’ struggle to raise socially healthy children is the recent technology that promises greater interpersonal connectivity while, in actuality, fostering isolation and disconnectedness.
One of the key personal values we can encourage in our children, apart from all those concerned with academics and hard work, is a world view focused outwardly on and with others. HTS provides students with all sorts of opportunities to reach out into the community to help others or to travel the world and help build the foundations of better societies in developing nations. The conclusion I have drawn from conversations with alumni who have gone abroad to perform service work is that they have all had life-changing experiences that have made them better people. Furthermore, there is considerable research indicating that students who broaden their focus beyond academics to become deeply engaged in school activities achieve better grades in school, are happier over their entire lives and are more successful over the long term. Today, more than ever, young people need to take these opportunities and see beyond themselves.
So how are parents to stay involved with their children, to encourage the right values and keep them on the right track?
Be the parents. Your children don’t need more friends. They don’t need jailers. They need parents. This means standing up for those values we all know deep down to be true, while at the same time providing the space young people need to mature. In Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with the Crisis in Childrearing, Robert Evans provides one of the best explanations for ideal parenting I’ve read. At the extreme ends of the parenting spectrum are the permissive and authoritarian models. Neither provides appropriate boundaries, nor the emotional security and reliability that children need. Both leave children inclined toward bad behaviour, albeit for different reasons, and both ultimately leave children feeling unhappy and unprepared for life. His ideal model is the authoritative. These parents are able to deliver the “NO” on big issues that children – despite their rolling eyes and snorts – want to hear, because it demonstrates that you care; and say “YES” on matters where issues like safety are not in question. These parents provide enough room for their children to make the sorts of mistakes from which they can learn significant life lessons.
Parents should note that American universities report students who have not had appropriate opportunities to experience small failures and mistakes are arriving at school unprepared for the more significant academic and social challenges that post-secondary life presents. For some schools, it has become a significant issue, requiring expenditures in counselling for students who are coping with failure for the first time, alone and far from home.
Finally, one thing I’ve learned listening to students over the years: we need to remember how much they worry about disappointing their parents. I have often sensed that students have wanted success more for their parents than they even wanted it for themselves. There is no doubt being a parent today is tough, but bear in mind that, despite appearances to the contrary, our children do want to make us happy – though how they choose to make their intentions visible during the teenage years can seem pretty mysterious. Keep driving home the right messages and values, because they are listening. They just don’t want you to know it yet.