How to Build Successful Children

By spending time with them

Life is unfair. That is what I was telling my kids yesterday during their umpteenth car fight. And then? I added that life is unfairly stacked in our favor.

What does that mean? Isn’t the United States a meritocracy? If you study hard and do well in school, aren’t you guaranteed a good life? Absolutely not.

When I applied to college in 1992, I could predict with virtual 100% accuracy who would get into which institutions. Armed with nothing other than SAT and Achievement scores plus grades and extracurricular activities, it was fairly easy to tell which students would be admitted to the top-tier schools, which the next level down and so forth.

All of that changed when the millennials started coming of age. You see, colleges do not increase their class size when a demographic bulge appears on the horizon. So those 800 seats in my undergraduate class? Suddenly had many more applicants than when I applied ten years earlier. Also? Electronic applications completely changed the college admissions game. My high school guidance counselor restricted the number of recommendations she would write, which in turn limited the number of schools to which I could apply. Thanks to technology, paper has been replaced by bytes, which means students can apply to many more schools.

So all of a sudden, I lost the ability to predict who would get into which schools. I was seeing students with perfect grades and SATs getting into zero colleges. I figuratively threw up my hands and moved on with life. But I filed a note in the back of my mind. And when I became a parent? I paid attention to the birth rate.

My children were born in 2006, 2008 and 2012. My two older children were born during a baby boom, which means they will face similar conditions in the college application process to the kids I saw graduating ten years after me. My baby? Arrived during a birth drought, so she will have her virtual pick of schools.

I can already see the effects of their respective birth years. My older children had extremely limited school choice options due to high demand. My baby? Can walk in anywhere and be welcomed with open arms.

So what does this mean for the future? It means that my older kids need to stand out. If they want to have any chance at all at plum opportunities, they cannot present cookie cutter resumes that are indistinguishable from a sea of applicants. And no, I am not just talking about college. I am talking about life. This applies to everything they will ever do.

So what am I doing to help them stand out? Am I paying through the nose to provide them with the best education and extracurricular activities? Am I working every connection I possess to get them into programs that will burnish their resumes? No and no. My kids attend public school in a district not renowned for the excellence of its programs. I spend very little on enrichment. So what am I doing to help my kids stand out? Spending time with them.

The ace in the hole that my children possess is me. And no, I am not talking about my elite background and connections, although clearly that does not hurt. I am talking about my knowledge. I have been places that few people will ever go, had detailed conversations with admissions officers and college sports coaches long before I ever became a parent. And every time they told me something that made me say, wow? I filed that information away for the future.

The most important thing my kids can do to succeed in life? Is to love what they do. The last thing I want is for them to be little robots programmed by their parents to succeed. I deliberately chose a life situation where my husband and I can spend a tremendous amount of time with our kids. I am constantly watching and assessing my children, encouraging strengths and correcting weaknesses, with my husband as my willing accomplice. And the only way I can spot these traits? Is by spending time with my kids. Lots of time. Also? I am the best person to cultivate them since I have firsthand experience with virtually every interest they espouse. I may not be the best violinist or softball player out there, but I am competent. And as their mother, I am in a position to make decisions with light speed. I do not have to get approval for budget or time concerns. If I see something that stands out in one of my kids, I move quickly and decisively to fit it into our life.

Eighteen months ago, Legoland Discovery Center Westchester opened applications for their first ever Creative Crew. What does it mean to be a member of the Creative Crew? Winning applicants are Lego staff members. They are outfitted with official uniforms and name badges complete with minifigures. And for the twelve months of their term, they officiate at Lego events, helping to teach other kids.

When I found out about this opportunity, I knew instantly that this would be an AMAZING experience for my kids. So I pulled out all the stops to create a video application for my two older children. And you know what? They both got in. For the entire next year, I kept hearing them called the Creative Crew siblings because they were the only ones with a family member on the crew.

Being on the Creative Crew was a lot of work. I had to drive the kids there during school hours and through rush hour traffic. But it was worth every bit of hassle. My kids received priceless experience in what it means to be a Lego staff member — at ages six and eight. They judged the competition won by New York Times featured Legomaster Veronica Watson. They unveiled the Lego Radio City Music Hall on News12 with the Rockettes. But best of all? They learned the value of hard work. Each had assignments and responsibilities, and they took them very seriously. We — and yes, that includes the entire family — made a commitment to Legoland, and we thoroughly fulfilled it.

This is an experience money cannot buy. Teaching my kids how to work hard and to love their assignments is something they are never too young to learn. And the only price? Was my time.