by Emma Seppälä Ph.D.
Most parents want their kids to be successful in life—and so we teach them attitudes that we believe will help them achieve their goals. But as I learned while researching my book The Happiness Track, many widely-held theories about what it takes to be successful are proving to be counterproductive. Sure, they may produce results in the short term. But eventually, they lead to burnout and—get this—less success. Here are a few of the most damaging things many of us are currently teaching our children about success, and what to teach them instead.
What we tell our kids: Focus on the future. Keep your eyes on the prize. What we should be telling them: Live (or work) in the moment.
It’s hard to stay tightly focused. Research shows our minds tend to wander 50% of the time we’re awake. And when our minds wander, we often start to brood over the past or worry about the future—thereby leading to negative emotions like anger, regret, and stress.
A mind that is constantly trying to focus upon the future— from getting good grades to applying to colleges—will be prone to greater anxiety and fear. While a little bit of stress can serve as a motivator, long-term chronic stress impairs our health as well as our intellectual faculties, such as attention and memory. As a consequence, focusing too hard on the future can actually impair our
Children do better, and feel happier, if they are learning how to stay in the present moment. And when people feel happy, they’re able to learn faster, think more creatively, and problem-solve more easily. Studies even suggest that happiness makes you 12% more productive. Positive emotions also make you more resilient to stress— helping you to overcome challenges and setbacks more quickly so you can get back on track.
It’s certainly good for children to have goals they’re working toward. But instead of always encouraging them to focus on what’s next on their to-do list, help them stay focused on the task or conversation at hand.
What we tell our kids: Stress is inevitable—keep pushing yourself.
What we should be telling them instead: Learn to chill out.
Children are feeling anxious at younger and younger ages, worrying about grades and feeling pressure to do better at school. Most distressingly, we’re even seeing stress-induced suicides in children—especially in high-achieving areas like Palo Alto in Silicon Valley.
The way we conduct our lives as adults often communicates to children that stress is an unavoidable part of leading a successful life. We down caffeine and over-schedule ourselves during the day, living in a constant state of overdrive and burning ourselves out— and at night, we’re so wired that we use alcohol, sleep medication, or Xanax to calm down.
All in all, this is not a good lifestyle to model for children. It’s no surprise that research shows that children whose parents are dealing with burnout at work are more likely than their peers to experience burnout at school.
I recommend that parents consider teaching their children the skills they will need to be more resilient in the face of stressful events. While we can’t change the work and life demands that we face at work and at school, we can use techniques such as meditation, yoga, and breathing to better deal with the pressures we face. These tools help children learn to tap into their parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system (as opposed to the “fight or flight” stress response).
What we tell our kids: Stay busy.
What we should be telling them: Have fun doing nothing.
Even in our leisure time, people in Western societies tend to value high-intensity positive emotions like excitement, as opposed to low-intensity emotions like calm. (The opposite is true in East Asian countries.) This means that our kids’ schedules are often packed to the brim with extracurricular activities and family outings, leaving little downtime.
There’s nothing wrong with excitement, fun, and seeking out new experiences. But excitement, like stress, exhausts our physiology by tapping into our “fight or flight” system—and so we can unwittingly prompt our children to burn through their energy after school or on weekends, leaving them with fewer resources for the times when they need it most.
Moreover, research shows that our brains are more likely to come up with brilliant ideas when we are not focusing (thus the proverbial a-ha moment in the shower). So instead of over-scheduling kids, we should be blocking out time when they can be left to their own devices. Children can turn any situation—whether they are sitting in a waiting room or walking to school—into an opportunity for play. They may also choose calming activities like reading a book, taking the dog for a walk, or simply lying under a tree and staring up at the clouds—all of which will allow them to approach the rest of their lives from a more centered, peaceful place. Giving your kids downtime will help them to be more creative and innovative. And just as importantly, it will help them learn to relax.
The point here is not to never challenge them or deprive them of opportunities for learning, the point is not to over-schedule and overcommit them to the point where they don’t have opportunities to learn independent play, to be with themselves and daydream, to learn to be happy just being rather than always doing.
What we tell our kids: Play to your strengths.
What we should be telling them: Make mistakes and learn to fail.
Parents tend to identify their children by their strengths and the activities that come naturally to them. They say their child is a “a math person,” a “people person,” or “an artist.” But research by Stanford University’s Carol Dweck shows that this mindset actually boxes your child into a persona, and makes them less likely to want to try new things that they may not be good at. When a kid receives praise primarily for being athletic, for example, they’re less likely to want to leave their comfort zone and try out for drama club. This can make them more anxious and depressed when faced with failure or challenges. Why? Because they believe that, if they encounter obstacles in a given area, that make them “not good at” the activity.
But our brains are wired to learn new things. And it can only be a good thing to learn from our mistakes while we’re young. So instead of identifying your child’s strengths, teach them that they actually can learn anything—as long as they try. Research by Dweck, author of best-selling book Mindset, shows children will then be more optimistic and even enthusiastic in the face of challenges, knowing that they just need to give it another go to improve. And they will be less likely to feel down about themselves and their talents.
What we tell our kids: Know your weaknesses, and don’t be soft.
What we should be telling them: Treat yourself well.
We also tend to think that criticism is important for self-improvement. But while self-awareness is of course important, parents often inadvertently teach their children to be too self-critical. If a parent tells a child that she should try to be more outgoing, for example, the child may internalize that as a criticism of her naturally introverted personality.
But research on self-criticism shows that it is basically self-sabotage. It keeps you focused on what’s wrong with you, thereby decreasing your confidence. It makes you afraid of failure, which hurts your performance, makes you give up more easily, and leads to poor decision- making. And self-criticism makes you more likely to be anxious and depressed when faced with a challenge.
Instead, parents should encourage children to develop attitudes of self-compassion—which means treating yourself as you would a friend in times of failure or pain. This doesn’t mean that your children should be self-indulgent or let themselves off the hook when they mess up. It simply means that they learn not to beat themselves up. A shy child with self-compassion, for example, will tell herself that it’s okay to feel shy sometimes and that her personality simply isn’t as outgoing as others —and that she can set small, manageable goals to come out of her shell. This mindset will allow her to excel in the face of challenge, develop new social skills, and learn from mistakes.
What we tell our kids: It’s a dog-eat-dog world—so look out for number one.
What we should be telling them: Show compassion to others.
Research shows that, from childhood onward, our social connections are the most important predictor of health, happiness, and even longevity. Having positive relationships with other people is essential for our well-
being, which in turn influences our intellectual abilities and ultimate success.
Moreover, likability is one of the strongest predictors of success—regardless of actual skills. Wharton professor Adam Grant’s book Give & Take shows that you express compassion to those around you and create supportive relationships instead of remaining focused on yourself, you will actually be more successful in the long term—as long as you don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.
Children are naturally compassionate and kind. But as psychologist Jean Twenge has written about in her book Generation Me, young people are also becoming increasingly self-involved. So, it’s important to encourage children’s natural instincts to care about other people’s feelings and learn to put themselves in other people’s shoes.
It’s true that it’s a tough world out there. But it would be a lot less tough if we all emphasized cutthroat competition less, and put a higher premium on learning to get along.