With kids poised to delve into another school year, Madeline Levine has some advice for parents: Back off.
A clinical psychologist with 30 years experience in the affluent suburbs of San Francisco, Levine has seen the damaging results when families are too narrowly focused on success. It's time, she says, for all of us to put away the "Baby Einstein" DVDs, take a collective deep breath and embrace a different definition of success.
Six years ago, she wrote "The Price of Privilege," which was heralded as a wake-up call about a national problem. She also co-founded "Challenge Success," a program at Stanford University's School of Education to develop research-based strategies to boost child well-being. Now, her new book, "Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success" (Harper Collins), goes further, offering fresh insights on fixing the problem. It's a welcome antidote to helicopter parents, already hovering at a school near you.
Q: What do we know now that we didn't know when your first book came out?
A: That too much pressure isn't good. We're seeing escalating rates of emotional problems ... depression, suicide, self-mutilation. The university systems here in California say they're incapable of handling all the requests for mental health services. The kids who grew up with these intense pressures ... they were the canaries in the coal mine.
Q: So why did it take so long to realize that this isn't the best formula for a well-adjusted child?
A: Because researchers don't have the resources of a Disney. Tutoring, flash cards and enrichment activities is a multibillion dollar industry. But there's no money to be made in climbing a tree, banging a pan or counting out jelly beans in your hand. Money is a big part of this ... and parents think that if you provide these experiences, your kid will get a leg up. But they've been sold a bill of goods that is completely out of sync with what we know about healthy child development.
Q: Aren't very committed parents with high expectations something to be encouraged?
A: It's understandable that parents would want to set the bar high ... good grades are seen as an insurance policy against your child flipping burgers the rest of his life. The only problem is that we've become overly focused on short-term performance. So, we keep strengthening the academic — say getting that A-minus to an A ... not cultivating traits like character, working collaboratively or being a good person. Real success will be measured when our kids are 21 to 31 (years old) ... not at the end of the grading period.
Q: That sounds good, except very few schools give awards for the kindest student at the year-end assembly.
A: You're right ... we don't recognize those qualities. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't.
Q: So how do you swim against the tide, especially in high-achieving communities?
A: You align what you say with what you do in your home. We don't have trouble saying, "In Johnny's house they may eat cookies before dinner, but we don't." But in this area, we don't live consistently with our values. So, we get into homework wars with our kids or we get caught up in getting into the right pre-school or Ivy League school because we feel that our kids will be at a competitive disadvantage if we don't.
Q: If grades, trophies and getting into status schools don't translate to success, how do you show your child you are proud of them? How best to build their confidence and self-esteem in a healthy way?
A: I want to be clear that things like grades and schools can add to a sense of self. It's just that they are far less important than we make them out to be. A robust sense of self comes from knowing oneself, from feeling that one is in charge of one's own life and decisions. ... A parent can be just as proud of a child who has taken a creek walk with friends and comes home with discoveries like shells or frogs as a child who gets an A on an exam.
All forms of curiosity, engaged learning and discovery should be celebrated — not by telling kids how smart or talented they are, but by sharing the excitement, the experience of learning with them. So better to say, "Tell me why you chose that rock, or that answer on the test," instead of, "You're so smart." Self-esteem is built through competence and ensuing confidence.
Q: Your conclusions seem like heresy ... especially at a time when we keep hearing about how America is losing out to other countries.
A: We're not dumbing down ... we're talking about real engagement with learning. Only a small percentage of kids are at the very high end. Meanwhile, we've marginalized everyone else, which are the majority of our kids.
Q: Many parents are very jittery about their child's first day of kindergarten. What advice would you give a first-time parent, just embarking down the educational path?
A: I'd say that kids have been going off to kindergarten for a long time. If you are overly stressed, you're conveying a message that ... you don't trust them. The message you really want to send is one of enthusiasm and joy.
Q: Anything else you want parents to know?
A: That at the end of the day, nothing matters more than your relationship — not grades, not whether they made the traveling team or their SAT scores. Because in adolescence, when kids can do whatever they feel like, if you don't have a good relationship, you're in trouble.