Are We Sheltering our Children From Success?

I have a Master’s Degree in education, teach advanced psychology courses, and write about parenting, but tragically in regard to parenting expertise, I’m my own worst student.

Why do I make parenting mistakes? It’s simple — I make mistakes because I’m in love with my daughter. Just as love can make a teenager act foolish, it can bring CEOs, trial lawyers, and psychologists to their knees before their crying two-year old child. Parents such as myself whom are prone to giving in do so for two reasons: to make our children happier and to make them love us more. Unfortunately, these types of behaviors designed to shelter our children from painful feelings may end up doing much more harm than good.

While thirty credits worth of psychology wasn’t enough to keep me disciplined as a parent, the two articles I read recently may have served as the proverbial wake up call I needed. The first, written by Lori Gottlieb of The Atlantic Monthly, was called, “How to land your kid in therapy.” And the second article, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” written by Paul Tough and published in The New York Times explained the work being done by psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania and some highly selective and successful schools in New York on character development.

Gottlieb, a clinical psychologist, seeks to understand why an increasing number of twenty and thirty-something patients whom she treats for depression and other psychological disorders have one unique thing in common — they all had amazingly happy childhoods. Perplexed by this correlation, Gottlieb consulted with other clinical and developmental psychologists specializing in child development in search of an explanation. One man she consulted with was Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of bestselling books on happiness such as, The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less. His response to her inquiry was, “Happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”

How can this be? Isn’t happiness as a goal meant to be a recipe for happiness? When you’re an adult perhaps it is, however, psychologists and teachers across the America are finding that parents are frequently conflating their happiness with that of their children, and as a result, doing a disservice to their children’s emotional development. Dan Kindlon, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard and author of the book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, stresses the need for kids to experience “painful feelings” in order to develop psychological immunity. He goes on to liken it to our body’s immune system — it must be exposed to pathogens or it won’t know how to respond to an attack. This is not to say you should set your children up for failure or declare, “There is no Santa Claus!” But as Kindlon says, there is a drastic difference between being loved and being constantly monitored.

All this of course begs the question, how much monitoring is too much? Is responding to every failure with “good try, darling” too much? Is giving your child complete decision making power — from choosing what he will eat for dinner to what type of instrument he wants to play or color shoes he wants to wear — too much? It seems that while parents are encouraged to acknowledge and applaud any efforts made by their children, many psychologists find that this constant barrage of support is creating a generation of narcissists. In fact, a San Diego State psychologist recently published a book, The Narcissism Epidemic. In it, Jean Twenge elucidates the connection between changing parenting styles and a rise in rates of narcissism, anxiety and depression among American youth. As such, short of taking the polemic Amy Chua approach, you benefit your children by not only providing them with accurate and constructive feedback, but also limiting their choices.

Character Development

While reading about these studies and findings, I immediately thought about the new emphasis on character development in schools. While it certainly has been a de-facto part of education since Lao Tzu asked his first question, the emphasis upon teaching character development explicitly has never been as great.

This emphasis, and the psychological reasons behind it as illustrated in The New York Times Article, brings me to the second reason for my need to become more disciplined as a parent. In his article, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” Mr. Tough discusses the collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania and two famous schools in New York City. The directors who sought out the Penn researchers cooperation is significant because one, Dominic Randolph, is the head of one of New York City’s most prestigious prep schools, Riverdale Country Day School. The other, David Levin, is the director of the KIPP network of charter schools. Levin and KIPP provide education for at risk youth, and have gained a ton of national attention doing an amazing job of it. The Penn University research gave both these New York luminaries in education the scientific support they needed to address an issue they had been struggling with for years.

The research conducted by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues is meant to determine what character traits lead to success both materially and psychologically. To meet this end, they studied literature, religious texts, and law codes from varying societies over the entire span of recorded history to create a classification of character strengths and virtues. Their finished work was over 800 pages, however they were able to synthesize their findings to twenty-four character strengths common to all cultures and times.

Dominic Randolph was excited with the work being done by the Penn researchers and the prospect of using it to construct a concentrated character development program at Riverdale because he felt that:

People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that these people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to handle that.

Randolph was worried that he was failing his students and their families because a school’s job is to educate our students so they are equipped for success. By neglecting to institute concentrated character development, schools neglect half of what our children will need to achieve any semblance of a successful adult life in terms of psychological and material wealth. To remedy this gap, Mr. Randolph immediately enlisted the expertise of Penn psychologists to help him develop a program of character education. One of the professors assigned to the project was Angela Duckworth who had been doing her own research on what makes an individual successful. What her research showed to be the character trait most closely linked with success was grit.

The importance of Grit

Duckworth defines grit as a combination of intense focus and dedication. In one of her grit studies, she gave a “grit test” that she and her colleagues had developed to incoming freshman at West Point Military Academy. The United States Military has its own system of measuring which incoming cadets will be successful at the academy (i.e. complete the program) at the academy via a complex analysis of athletic prowess, leadership traits, and intelligence. Professor Duckworth’s short grit questionnaire designed to figure out which freshman cadets had high “grit levels” and which did not, turned out to be a better predictor of which cadets would finish the program than the military’s own measure.

In another Duckworth led study, Penn researchers tested low socio-economic status students at some New York charter schools as well as students at Riverdale Country Day school for a variety of measurable traits such as self control and IQ. What they found was that the students with higher IQs did better on state standardized tests, but the students with greater self-control did better on their report card grades. Evidence furthering the idea that strong character can get you further in the “real world” than IQ alone.

It is important to note here that there are decidedly two types of character: moral character and performance character. Moral character is perhaps what we are most familiar with when we think of the word “character” whereas performance character would include traits such as grit, social intelligence, curiosity, optimism, zest and self-control. Professor Duckworth and her Penn colleagues have found that those most successful in life in terms of material wealth as well as personal “happiness” have high degrees of moral as well as performance character; so much so that Professor Duckworth states, “educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

This is where my epiphany occurred. I started thinking about all my friends who were psychologically and emotionally the strongest. Without a doubt what they all had in common was their very imperfect upbringing. And here I am sheltering my daughter from suffering the emotional pain of getting two cookies instead of three.

For me, the most profound irony of parenting is that we lose sleep at night thinking about ways to make life easier for our children. We work seventy-hour weeks so that we can give them the life we never had. We shelter them from pain physical and emotional. We struggled, and continue to struggle, so they don’t have to. The problem with this mindset is that education experts, psychologists, and neuroscientists are making it abundantly clear that struggle begets success. But that statement has a few caveats of course. A major one being Successful Struggle is demonstrated to lead to positive character development. Psychologists refer to this successful struggle as the “zone of proximal development.” Struggling on tasks that are hard but not impossible leads to growth intellectually or physically. Think of weight training — if you only lifted five-pound weights, you wouldn’t get any stronger, and if you attempted to lift more than you were capable of, you wouldn’t get stronger either. As such, it is clear that the key to both physical and psychological strength is struggling towards success.

The uproar in regard to Amy Chua’s recently published book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she maligns the parenting style of Americans resulted from American parents’ intellectual and emotional conflict with the facts surrounding the psychological benefits of struggle. According to her critics, Ms. Chua, a Yale Law professor, was clearly not participating in the new American way of insulating her children from psychological pain. Quite to the contrary, she was inflicting it upon them. I believe this could’ve been ignored, if it wasn’t for the fact that it apparently worked. By all accounts, Ms. Chua’s daughters are amazing. The Ivy League school bound envy of their peers. It was this last bit that I believed shocked and angered American parents the most, for it was a direct repudiation of a life’s dedication to preventing failures, anger and frustration — a life’s dedication to preventing struggle.

I am not alone in this assessment, for in commenting on his elite students’ lack of character and thus the need for a concentrated character development program at Riverdale, Headmaster Randolph remarked, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure, and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

How to Move Forward

It is important to understand that what children need first and foremost is love, attention, self-esteem, and support. But there is plenty of room between under parenting and over parenting. I’m guessing your parents weren’t abusive, and yet they weren’t sheltering you from every failure and struggle that came your way; nor did they bankroll your every materialistic whim.

The most beautifully comforting thing I’ve learned through research in the field of psychology and practice in the field of education is that you have to be pretty egregiously neglectful to mess up your child. Our children are amazingly resilient. The goal many of us have that our children avoid all our struggles in life and achieve even greater heights of experience and happiness than we have can be paradoxically jeopardized if we go too far in protecting them from character building experiences that will allow those successes to come. By enabling our children too much we disable them.

So going forward I have the astonishing goal of making my daughter cry more. To achieve this, I need to set more limits, which means more timeouts and ultimately more crying. I need to step away when she is climbing that high ladder-obstacle on the playground — she may fall, but my mind tells me she’ll keep trying until she makes it to the top.

Now if only I can get my heart to fall in line.