Helping Kids Succeed: How Much Do Parents Really Control?

Ask any group of parents what they want for their children. It doesn’t matter if they’re members of DAR or illegal immigrants, their answers will be pretty much the same: a good education, the opportunity for success, health, happiness.

What parents sometimes forget is that how kids turn out isn’t something that happens all of a sudden, like magic, at fifteen, twenty or thirty-two.

The determinants of a child’s success, however, may be more predictable than we think.  While it was once believed that genetics held the majority of the cards, increasing evidence shows that environment may play an even larger role, as revealed through epigenetics, the science of how stress, diet, behavior, toxins and other factors activate chemical switches that regulate gene expression, impacting human potential.

My daughter’s ninth grade health teacher taught a course called, “Thriving vs. Surviving.”  It was all about the need human beings have not only to survive, but to do well, in their environment. Some believe that a child’s potential to do well begins in the womb, with the mother’s desire for her child. After the birth, of course, come the all-important interactions with family—again, factors within our control. Taking those interactions seriously is key, for the young child relies entirely on the protection and nurture of his parents.

According to a March 2012 research overview published in Perspective, the journal of the UK’s National Childbirth Trust, “Mothers who are attuned (or tuned-in) to their babies promote their attachment and communication skills.” In other words, mothers who pay attention and respond to their babies are setting their kids up for success in school and beyond. “Research shows that what parents do with their children before they are three-year-old plays an important role in their development, having more of an effect even than social background on a child’s readiness for school.”

While it’s been shown that socio-economic advantage provides children with richer language-learning opportunities, families on the lower end need to pay attention to the possibilities. Reaching for opportunities for the sake of one’s children is nothing new. Consider our country’s history of immigration and the brilliant minds that grew from tenements.

Even what we say to children has a huge impact on their ability to learn and succeed. And words cost nothing.

Think about the following scenario: Eight-year-old Sam is helping his mom with the grocery shopping, steering the cart through the produce section. Suddenly the cart bumps a display stacked high with apples. Rows of rosy galas, braeburns, red delicious and mackintosh come down in an avalanche. A few fall into his cart, but many more bounce onto the floor and spin across the aisle. Sam scrambles to his knees and attempts to gather them up.

What would you do if you were Sam’s mom?

  1. Grab him by the arm and scold, “That’s the last time I’m taking you shopping!”
  2. Scoff, “See what you’ve done? How embarrassing!”
  3. Say, “The store pays people to clean up messes. Let’s keep shopping.
  4. Help him pick up the apples.

Over the years, I’ve heard it all;  and I can tell you that anger only serves to put the focus on the parent. The child then has to deal with his parent’s emotions instead feeling his own. Scoffing or mocking causes shame, a devastating legacy for any child. And telling kids that they’re above everyone else confers a false sense of superiority. None of these options teaches children to have confidence in their own problem-solving ability. And isn’t that what we really want them to have in school and in life? Isn’t facing and solving problems both large and small something they must learn to do in order to succeed?

Sam’s mother remained detached but involved. She didn’t lambast her son. She became his ally. It was time to pitch in and help. “Oops.” she said. “Let’s get these apples off the floor before somebody takes a spill.”

Most importantly, by responding without threatening or scoffing, Sam’s mom allowed him to process his own feelings, instead of imposing hers. She freed him to think, something kids should be doing a lot more of these days.  Without the burden of an adult’s trip on his head, he might seek out help or come to the realization that he needs to be more careful next time.

Kids who are permitted to express all kinds of feelings and thoughts have a distinct advantage over kids with parents who rant or shame.  In her book, The Child in the Family, the late Maria Montessori writes, “The mind that does not respond to its own spiritual necessities runs the same risks as the body that no longer responds to hunger pangs or the need to rest.”

I think what she means is that when adults wield too much control over a child, they interfere with his ability to hear his own inner voice. As a result, the child will not learn to be his own master. Instead, he will always be directed by someone else’s voice.

When we respect our kids enough to let them – indeed,  help them -express their thoughts and emotions without constant redirection or negation, we are accepting and welcoming who they were meant to be in this world.  Anything else is tantamount to theft.

How did Sam feel?  Well, probably pretty embarrassed. But by supporting him, instead of hijacking the situation, his mom allowed him to show initiation and remedy the problem, fostering his self-respect.

It’s now well established that when parents react with anger, kids respond with fear. Fear triggers the part of the brain responsible for survival and the release of stress hormones. These hormones act like a switch that cuts off the normal thought process. The body kicks into survival mode, preparing for “fight or flight.” In other words, stress lessens a person’s ability to use the frontal lobes, or the cognitive “thinking” brain, while the body prepares to defend itself or run away.

High stress isn’t a healthy state for anyone, least of all young children. According to the website of the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, when a child lives with ongoing toxic stress, such as the stress caused by poverty or domestic violence— such as the threat of being hit or yelled at—their ability to concentrate, think and learn is compromised. Over time, the architecture of the developing brain is damaged. In addition, behavioral and health problems can result.

How we respond to our kids today shapes who they become tomorrow. If we want them to reach their potential, grow to be smart, healthy, and responsible human beings, we need to be aware – truly aware – of how we treat them. Because the future will be here before we know it. FFG

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