5 Things To Know So You Don’t Mess Up Your Kid

A short guide to good parenting.

Like every parent, Cersei Lannister wanted her child to grow up to be successful and prosperous. Though graced with all of the advantages that wealth and at least one (very) involved parent bring — tutors and books, toys and endless opportunities for travel — success and prosperity weren’t what Prince Joffrey got. Had Cersei gone to the castle library early on and flipped through a couple of parenting books, Prince J might have made it out of adolescence alive — and Westeros might have been substantially less bloody.


So, what could the Queen have learned that would so change the course of a child and a kingdom? Namely, that there are a few things past cognitive training and snazzy robes that make a kid successful. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough draws upon scientific studies and data from real schools to reveal why some children struggle in school and later on in life, while others thrive and prosper.

Learn what Cersei never did with these five things to know to help your children succeed.

1. No matter how happy-go-lucky they seem, stress has a huge impact on children.

Ah, that churning of the gut, the rabbiting pulse, the clammy hands: evolution developed these classic stress reactions to help us hightail it from predators. Modern life, however, deals in longer-term stress, like financial troubles or damaged social relationships. But the body’s stress reactions can’t differentiate between short and sustained stress, so the stress hormones keep on firing. Elevated stress hormones are understandably damaging to both the body and the mind — and children are particularly vulnerable.

Why help regulate stress in a child’s life? For the sake of the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation. Chronic stress wears it down, making for wishy-washy impulse control that is fertile ground for high-risk behavior. Adolescents are particular susceptible, given the higher opportunity and temptation toward unprotected sex, drug use, dropping out of school or drunk driving. While dangerous in themselves, these behaviors have especially drastic consequences for the young: a jail sentence or disease can completely and permanently alter one’s life trajectory for the worse.

What you can do: Work at becoming a more attentive parent (skip to #2).

2. Attentive, nurturing parenting can make all the difference.

There is a way to offset the effects of stress on a child: with attentive, nurturing parenting. Studies that examined the levels of stress hormones in the urine of children with attentive mothers have shown that even in stressful environments, a mother can almost completely eradicate her child’s physiological stress factors.

What’s the magic of attentive parenting? It creates a secure attachment between the parents and their children. A secure attachment is considered the healthiest, most well-adapted attachment between parent and child, in which the parent serves as a “safe base” for the child as he explores the surrounding world.

But nobody’s born a perfect parent — and that’s okay. Parents can get help with becoming more sensitive to the needs of their children through psychotherapy. In How Children Succeed, Tough cites a study in which therapists worked with at-risk parents and their infant children to improve attachment relationships that would shield the children from the adverse effects of trauma. This form of child-parent psychotherapy was highly successful in helping parents form secure attachments with their children.

What you can do: Be attentive to your child’s needs. It’s important to ask how he or she is feeling, listen to their contributions, and create a non-judgmental atmosphere of sharing and support. And if you could use a little expert help — get it! It’s proven to work and could make all the difference for a growing child.

3. Strength of character is as important as strength of cognition.

In recent years, parents have relied on a theory called the cognitive hypothesis. Based on the notion that the surest predictors of a child’s future success are cognitive abilities, like skills in math or word and pattern recognition, it posits that these skills are best developed by providing the child with as much cognitive stimulation as possible, early.

But here’s the thing: there’s been mounting evidence that non-cognitive skills, namely optimism, conscientiousness, curiosity, perseverance and self-discipline, make equally meaningful contributions to a child’s future success.

Tough’s book cites a study that found the reason high school graduates do better than dropouts later in life is not higher intelligence, but greater perseverance. Perseverance helped them work through high school and graduate, and it had also aided them to condition themselves to meet obstacles later in life. Yet another study examined the students of a prestigious preschool: while the school’s participants initially enjoyed a short-term IQ advantage over their peers, this advantage wore off within a few years. Nevertheless, these children did indeed go on to do better than their peers in many areas of life.

What accounts for their success if not their superior cognitive skills? It turned out the greatest benefits the preschool conferred were actually non-cognitive skills like curiosity and self-control, whose positive effects rippled well into the people’s forties.

What you can do: Invest in that Baby Einstein suite, sure, but remember to take every opportunity to nurture perseverance, conscientiousness and self-discipline in your children.

4.Too much parenting can be as problematic as too little.

Affluent parents tend to place their children under a lot of performance pressure. While more likely to insist on high achievement from their children, the same parents have a greater tendency to be emotionally distant — a recipe for shame and hopelessness in the child. It follows that children from wealthy households are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than their less-well-off peers and suffer from greater degrees of anxiety and depression.

Adding to this, affluent parents also tend to shield their children from every possible failure or hardship. Such an overindulged child ends up with a very low tolerance for dealing with adversity, rendering them unable to cope with difficult situations they’ll have to tackle later in life.

All this leaves children with a permanent fear of failure. In fact, Tough asserts, children with affluent parents seem to carry this fear into adulthood, opting for careers with a much smaller risk of failure.

What you can do: Strike a balance. Allow your children to make decisions for herself and check that Tiger Mom instinct. And when kids don’t perform as you were expecting, explain to them that failure is an important part of success — next time, they’ll be better prepared to soar.

5. Mistakes are moments, not destinies.

Despite its uninspiring name, there’s something remarkable about Intermediate School 318 (IS 318) in New York. Although it is a public school in a poor neighborhood, it’s top dog when it comes to chess. This success is rooted in a surprising concept: understanding the importance of failure.

Although it may be uncomfortable, children must confront their mistakes head on so that they can learn from them. Elizabeth Spiegel, who runs the chess program at IS 318, reviews every move her students make in a group, lauding good strategies, but more importantly pointing out bad moves and how they could have been improved. This exercise offers students the valuable lessons of self-control and cognitive flexibility: it’s best not to make the first move that comes to your head, but rather explore your other options first.

Mistakes, however, can weigh heavily on a child, so it’s important to teach them to separate themselves from their mistakes. Spiegel teaches her students that “losing is something you do, not something you are,” and this attitude helps children to understand that mistakes are actually valuable assets because they help you to improve.

What you can do: help your child use a mistake as a learning opportunity. Talk over your child’s mistake to non-judgmentally identify what happened, how it affected the outcome, and then discuss possible strategies for making the best of similar situations they might encounter in the future.

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