Answers by Julie Lythcott-Haims, Author of NYT bestseller How to Raise an Adult; former Stanford dean; podcast host, on Quora.
Q: What are the most important skills / attributes children should be developing?
A: In this day and age of hyper-competitive college admission, a poor economy, and a job landscape that is transforming before our very eyes, parents are worried, and rightly so, that kids may not be successful out there. The thing is, we don't actually prepare them for the future by doing everything FOR them - doing too much for them just leaves them bewildered as young adults who are still waiting for everything to be perfect and rosy like childhood was. Instead we have to prepare them to be strong, resilient, persistent fighters who know that it takes hard work to achieve their goals. And they need to know how to treat other humans with respect and kindness. These two things - hard work and a kind character - are the foundations for a successful, happy life.
Q: What are the most important things you can do as a parent for your child?
A: Love them and make them do chores. Seriously.
You see, one of the longest longitudinal studies of humans ever conducted - the Harvard Grant Study - found that professional success in life comes from having done chores as a child, and the earlier the kid started, the better; being able to roll up your sleeves and pitch, being able to do the unpleasant tasks without being asked, being interested in contributing one's effort to the betterment of the whole, that's what gets you ahead in the working world. Intuitively it makes sense. But with our kids oh so busy with the academics and extracurriculars, often we absolve them from having to do any of the work around the house. They become young adults in the workforce still waiting to be told what to do next, lacking the impulse, the instinct to look around to see how they can be useful, anticipate what colleagues or a boss might need, think a few steps ahead, pitch in. Chores are more important than endless test prep, in my view.
The Harvard Grant study also found that happiness in life equals love. Not love of work but loving relationships with humans. Partners, spouses, kids, family, friends. Our kids need to be loved unconditionally in the first place they know - home - so they can love themselves and then go out into the world and have the capacity to love and be loved. When they come home from school or we come home from work we need to put down our technology and look them in the eyes and let them see the joy that fills our faces upon seeing our precious child. Sure we're dying to know how they did in that math test, but what we need to ask is how was your day? What was good about today, and to take an actual interest in whatever they say. They want to know they matter to us. They want to feel loved for who they are not for their GPA.
The final thing we can do is be a good role model of a healthy, vibrant adult. I'm not surprised so many young adults are "failing to launch" - we've made adulthood look so very unattractive. We've shown them that all adults do is obsess over kids and stand on the sidelines of kids lives with our coffee drinks.
Q: How can overeager parents stop themselves from becoming helicopter parents?
A: Start with the philosophical: Like any mammal parent, your job as a parent is to put yourself out of a job, and raise your offspring to independence. You've succeeded if they can fend for themselves at 18-20-22ish. Doesn't mean you'll stop loving them, caring about them, believing in them. You just want to be certain they have what it takes to be the adult in their own lives, when that inevitable time comes when you're gone.
- first you do it for them
- then you do it with them
- then you watch them do it
- then they do it completely independently
Whether it's crossing the street, making a meal, remembering to put their own stuff in their bag... they need to learn these things and childhood will teach them if only we'll let it. We have to tolerate their imperfection, and teach them how, but not encroach/micro-manage. Humans want to learn and grow. We need to get out of their way.
These questions originally appeared on Quora. - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:
- Colleges and Universities: What does it really take to get into a top college (Ivy League, Stanford)?
- Parenting: What is helicopter parenting, and why do parents do it?
- Silicon Valley: What do you think about the way most parents in Silicon Valley are raising their kids?
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