“Be bold! Be different! Don’t be afraid to fail!,” we encourage our kids via cute T-shirts, bright pencil cases, and Instagram memes.
If only we would take our own advice.
Something funny has happened over the past couple of generations — where we went from defining success as “a chicken in every pot” to a heavy, guilt-inducing load of expectations: exclusive breast-feeding, infant flashcards, tutors starting as young as age 4, a full slate of AP classes, more SAT tutors, Ivy League school, prestigious professional six-figure career, and a McMansion with two living rooms.
If we or our kids deviate off this path, we ask ourselves: Where did we fail? Some parents are even getting desperate, like those celebrities who didn’t think their children had enough opportunities through wealth and fame, so they allegedly bribed colleges to ensure their kids’ admission.
This has to end. We must redefine success. For our sanity — and that of our kids — we need to stop this relentless pressure to achieve more, and more, and more.
A not radical (but radical) idea: What if we just nurtured our children to become the best version of themselves they could be, and called that successful? Grades, salary and job title need not apply.
Now I’m not suggesting that we stop caring, or support a generation of directionless philosophers. We should still push our kids to set goals and achieve them. But those benchmarks should feel more organic to their temperaments and less about our desire to brag.
A kid who loves coloring and tinkering with others’ hair might be given the opportunity to explore a career as a hairstylist instead of being forced to go to a four-year university. After all, not everyone is meant to attend an Ivy League school. Not everyone is meant to attend college, period. There are plenty of well-paying careers in the trades (a master electrician can earn a healthy salary, for example), or the booming $3.7 trillion health-care industry that require varying levels of education.
Picture this: You son becomes a nurse practitioner. Your daughter graduates from a community college or a state school, then opens a small business. Your nephew gives up the idea of becoming an architect to instead work in the commercial construction industry. They all live comfortably. They’re happy, and their kids are loved, supported and fed — which 60 years ago was literally splashed on ads as “The Good Life.”
I don’t write this to judge us as parents. Many of us started our careers just before or during the 2008 recession, graduating with tons of college debt and into the sometimes unforgiving gig economy. We’ve all read the scary stats about how our generation will earn less money than our parents’ for the first time in history.
And the stakes seem to keep getting higher. Thanks to social media, we’re suddenly comparing our children to everyone we’ve ever met (hi, random person from junior high in my Facebook feed!), and plenty of people we haven’t met (why oh why do I know that Kylie Jenner’s 1-year-old has a giant toy Mercedes-Benz?). This all stems from the love we have for our kids, but we’re making ourselves crazy pushing our children to keep up.
Social media isn’t going anywhere. We’re more connected than ever before, whether we like it or not. So it’s up to us: Do we compare ourselves endlessly, knowing it’s a losing game? Or do we change our mind-set to focus on finding our own purpose? I hope it’s the latter. The unique ways we carry out our lives should be a point of pride, not shame.
As I was writing this, I was curious what the people who are experts in, well, raising successful kids would think about the idea of encouraging our children to follow their own roads. So I called award-winning journalist Tatsha Robertson and Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard economist who has sat on the school’s admissions board for 30 years. They recently wrote a book, “The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children.”
After an hour-long conversation, we realized we agree on the definition of success more than I would have thought — seeing how I’m writing a book called “You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids,” and they literally invented a formula for success. Raising successful kids shouldn’t be about “prestige as opposed to life fulfillment, [but] achieving a lofty purpose more than a credential,” Ferguson said over the phone. You don’t need “fancy toys or expensive tutors.” And encouraging your kid should have nothing to do with your race and socioeconomic privilege, Robertson added.
“You can’t impose a dream, but you can expose a dream,” says Ferguson. “The goals should be whatever emerges naturally.”
So when you feel that anxiety rising up in your throat that you are not doing enough, take a deep breath. By pushing your children to become the very best version of themselves — no matter what professional, or educational, paths it leads them down — you’re giving them the tools to real fulfillment and a more calm and centered life. And you’re saving yourself a lot of stress in the process.
Who knows: The next time you see one of those “you are unique!” memes on Instagram, maybe you’ll have the courage to actually live it.