Last week at a speaking engagement in Illinois, I asked my audience of parents to tell me about their kids.
Not just “tell” me about them, but brag. I gave them permission to boast. Pull out the smartphone, if they wanted, to show off the photos.
I had to cajole them into doing it.
Hard to believe, right? We’re a society that practically rents billboards to broadcast our children’s accomplishments. Our Christmas cards sing the praises of our friend’s children (rather than oh, say, the Baby Jesus). Heck, in the suburbs, “student of the month” bumper stickers cover cars like Turtle Wax.
But this group was at least polite and knew that bragging is still considered declasse, if not downright rude. But without their boasts, my point would be lost.
At last, one mom obliged with a proud but general statement that her son is a terrific lacrosse player.
A dad mentioned his daughter’s good grades. Another parent was pleased to describe what a good job her daughter had done reading aloud in church.
When the floodgates finally opened, a mom got into the spirit of the thing and offered up details about her son’s academic prowess and his elite sports team and, not to show favoritism, also mentioned that her daughter has had all A’s for three semesters.
I talked about how much I admire my eldest daughter’s moral compass. She’s as ethical a young woman as I have ever met. Daughter No. 2 is remarkably empathetic; she senses what’s up with others and always seems to respond appropriately — and wisely. My son is the hardest working person I’ve ever met, bar none. He’s fearless in the face of difficult things, and never lets failure get the best of him. My youngest is a girl of integrity, no matter how badly the truth might impede her social plans.
The reason I offered my audience “bragging rights” and allowed myself to crow a bit about my kids? To demonstrate that we’ve become habituated to the achievement culture and to teach, if only by example, that we shouldn’t define our children by their successes, but by their virtue.
Perhaps the best book on parenting in this way is not actually a parenting book at all, but is Paul Tough’s sociological study of children’s character. In “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” Mr. Tough reveals that American children — even those mired in poverty and without the advantages of suburban “helicopter parents” — are able to achieve ultimate success not because of what they have or how they do things, but because of who they are.
To the extent that nurture plays a role, parents who jump into every situation to smooth the path for their children, or assure they never experience failure, or seek “fairness” in every situation (however that’s defined) in fact do their children a disservice, because kids must learn resourcefulness, resiliency and perseverance through firsthand experience.
You can’t just tell a kid what it would be like to dig deeper when things get difficult. You have to let him do the digging. You have to let it be difficult.
For years, I’ve counted myself among a few writers who trumpet the old school notion that our job as parents is to make ourselves unnecessary. Michele Borba, Lenore Skenazy, Lori Borgman, Betsy Hart and others have echoed my plea to parents to focus their attention on the condition of their children’s hearts, not on test scores and travel teams and audition-only ensembles and gifted-and-talented programs that might result in “greater opportunities” down the road.
The road is actually pretty short, and it’s fraught with pitfalls for a person whose conscience and character were left flapping in the breeze while driving to the math tutor.
And at last, Mr. Tough’s book confirms what we writer-moms keep saying in column after column, blog after blog: It’s who we are that defines what we do with our lives.
Our kids deserve to learn this — the hard way — which is the only way there is.