Teaching Your Children Well (according to Madeline Levine)

We all want to the best for our children. Right? We want them to be self-sufficient, caring, loving, empathetic,”successful”, beings who grow up to support {us} themselves and their family. How do we achieve this? Through being loving, caring, tentative parents, who push our children academically, and give up all of whom we are as individuals so we can take our kids to soccer, ballet, lacrosse, t-ball, swimming and gymnastics, all with our latte’s and smartphones in tow, of course! News flash -WRONG!

I had the pleasure of attending “An Evening Featuring Madeline Levine PhD”, Author of New York Times Best Sellers” The Price of Privilege” and newest book release” Teach Your Children Well” at the Brunelle Performing Arts Theatre, in Davis. She has quite the impressive bio, a psychologist with close to 30 years of experience as a clinician, consultant and educator, co-founder of Challenge Success a project birthed at Stanford’s School of Education, author of the most shared New York Times article (ever!) Raising Successful Children, and a mother of three boys, newly “minted.”

Honestly, she was a very entertaining, charming, and truthful speaker…exactly how I like it, not at all like what I was expecting (you never know with psychologists). I did purchase her book before hand, in hopes of reading it all before hearing her lecture. I managed to get through the first two chapters (almost), which was enough for me to understand the premise, and intrigued to hear more. Though my children are a little young (3.5 and 12 months) to be worrying about their ivy league applications, I certainly understand the anxiety surrounding wanting the best for them at any cost.

Madeline stresses, that our own anxieties about our children’s success, hinders “authentic success.” Authentic success is based “not on anxiety, but on scientific research, clinical experience, and a sprinkling of common sense.” In her book, she notes “that while we hope our children will do well in school, we hope even greater fervor that they will do well in life.”

“Our job is to help them to know and appreciate themselves deeply; to approach the world with zest; to find work that is exciting and satisfying, friends and spouses who are loving and loyal; and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to society. This is what it means to “teach our children well.”

She opened with a rudimentary hand-drawn graph (which she confessed was not the greatest) of a Demitry Martin replica…

much like this one
much like this one

The straight line being those very few who actually achieve all they want, the “right” way. The jagged line, being the majority of us, along for the bumpy ride to success.

Finding the right path, is not achieved by “over-parenting” or “under-parenting.” So, where do we find the balance?

Through choices, which she argues are “artificial choices.” We all (including our children) have things “that we are extraordinary at, things we suck at, and thing we are average at.” She pointed out that “we spend too much time worrying about our kids deficits, and not enough time, cultivating their strengths.” It’s alright not to be good at everything! Let’s stop expecting our children to be.

Authentic Success (different from academic success) is being “the best me I can be, not simply in isolation, but as part of a community, and it always includes a component of meaningful contribution and connection with others.”

She stressed the importance of friendships and exploratory play in the preschool and school years and reminded us that we should not over-schedule our children with sports and activities. Children need to have time to play, creative, exploratory play. I would like to point out that she confirmed (through strong research) that children who attend play-based preschools, are (3-times) more likely to succeed academically in school versus their academic based pre-school classmates. Hip, hip, hooray for DPNS!

She talked about how even”collaboration” among parents (especially moms) has been replaced with “competition.” This was probably my favorite part of her lecture. She gave the scenario of her and some fellow “Marin County” mommies grabbing lattes at the local hoity-toity grocery market conversing about how all their children are perfect. As she was telling us what she was thinking that day, she blurted out, “No they are not, they are F’d up (only she used the full version of the word), I see them all in my office!” She was completely taken aback by her outburst. She actually stopped for a minute to re-coup and made a comment that she needs to stick to her notes to avoid outburst such as those. It was HILARIOUS! Not a quiet seat in the house. I don’t think there is a mother out there that can’t relate this to this without having a PhD next to their name.

I realize, I myself am a little side-tracked here, but it notable to point out that WE, as parents, are part of the problem. As Madeline said it, “We all have our eye on the wrong ball.” It is time to start thinking of success “not in terms of today, the next grading period, or the next year, but in terms of what we hope for our children ten or twenty years down the line, when they leave our homes and walk into their own lives.” It requires courage and imagination on your part as a parent to be able to think this way, but it is “the most effective way to ensure our children have satisfying and meaningful lives”, which is far greater than academic success. If all we care about are “metrics” (getting straight A’s), we are marginalizing all the other talents (such as creativity).

 The book, and her lectures underlying argument, is we need to “expand our notion as to what can lead to success.” By doing so, we will stop “over parenting”, which is not just the tiger moms btw, which will lower our anxiety about success causing us to do more for our children than we need to. Now, she, nor I, are saying that you should not “push” your child academically. She simply lays out the research indicating that it is not always necessary. We need to accept that every child is different, and “every child has a super power” and it is up to us to find it. Knowing your child “in deep substantial ways, takes time.” Time that the majority of parents are now spending taxing their children around to every sporting event possible while passively sitting on the bleachers watching, standing over their shoulders while they complete their math homework, never taking time for themselves or spending necessary date night money on tutors for their child in hopes of raising their b+ to an A. If we, as parents, give up everything of ourselves for our child’s success, we are only creating a self-entitled child.

She talks a great deal about self-entitlement, and how that trait, affects our children’s success far more than what college they did or did not attend. She spoke with a big-wig in NASA about the fear parents have about children in other cultures being hired (to work for NASA) over Americans. His response was, “In terms of content, American kids are the same as everyone. In terms of self-entitlement, they were the worst.” They need constant acknowledgment, and affirmation. Something, no one is in the business of doing.

So how did we get ourselves into this mess?

1. By doing for your children what they can already do
2. By doing for your child what they can almost do
3. The inability to determine the difference between our childs needs versus our own

It seems like a no-brainer not to do for child what they can do for themselves, but I think we all have, and probably the older your child, they’re aren’t enough fingers to count. For this she gave the example of always dialling 411 for her son when he needed a phone number (something a high schooler clearly could have done for himself). When he went away to (top-tier) college, he had to call her to find out “what number she called to get numbers?”, which she answered, “411.” She then called him back to make sure he knew about 911. Obviously this is not detrimental by any means, but it is just a clear example of how we enable our children this way.  I can think of thousands (slightly exaggerated) of things I do for my preschooler that she can do for herself (well, not since I heard this lecture on Friday) like putting on her shoes, clearing her plate, etc. No more.

She spent a large chunk of her lecture on the downfalls of doing for your child what they can ALMOST do. She calls this “the zone of growth” where coping skills and self-control are developed (both critical to her definition of success). She brought up the concept of allowing your child to have “successful failures” and gave this scenario: Your child has been working every night on a homework assignment for over a week, and left it on the kitchen table the morning it was due. Do you drop it off? Answer: No. “Your child has to feel challenge, discomfort and unhappy in order to learn coping skills.” She also gave the example of a Standford freshmen, who couldn’t find her next class on campus. Instead of reaching in her backpack to find the campus map, she reached in her pocket and called her mom in ASIA to ask her where her next class was (can you say, roar?). She then asked us how many us had children old enough to drive. Gasp. I shudder at the idea, as do many, I am sure. She pointed out “that it is our task to deal with our anxiety about it.”

When listening to the lecture, I couldn’t help but keep thinking she really just wanted to say, “this is not about you people, so get a grip.” I guess she kind of is saying that in her third point being the inability to determine our own needs versus our childs. Perhaps the clearest example of this is “the Harvard wanna-be dad” who literally jumped on her couch like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s, when the word “Harvard” rolled off his son’s tongue when telling her that he was considering to apply. The dad, wanted to go there for his own scholastic achievements but did not. The son, who was very bright, and could go to any school, wanted to be in a place where the students cared about one another, not the cut throat atmosphere his prep school was. Obviously, Harvard would not be the best option for achieving a less competitive environment. She told the dad, that maybe he should go online and order a bumper sticker that says “Harvard Parent” and drive around a nearby town. She then also criticized the “my child is an honor roll student” bumper stickers you see on mini vans driving around town. Not really the message we want to portray to our kids that achievements are all we are proud of.

She then reminded us that we should be praising effort and improvement, not the result. I try to remember this all of the time when my daughter shows me her paintings. The research suggests that instead of saying what a beautiful picture, you should say “I like your choice of colors” or “I can see you put in a lot of effort into it!” If you do praise the result, they now have a certain bar set. What happens if the next time she paints something, I say “oh, it is nice” she won’t feel as good about “nice” as she did about “beautiful” and she will wonder what she did wrong to make it not as beautiful (insert tear here). It is easier said then done, but we really should remember this at the grade level. The same goes for them… “they begin to think they are only as good as their last performance.” Remember that they are vulnerable, especially to our words.

She got really personal and talked about her own children when discussing the 3 different ways in which people learn

Analytically – Her first son, who was much like the straight line of success (athlete, every honors imaginable, top-tier school, and now a successful attorney)
creatively -her middle son who was smart, simply choose to a different path (now lives in a “closet” in New York pursing a career in the arts…)
Hands on doing – which is her youngest son, you got A’s in wood shop and B’s and C’s in others (but has the heart of gold) – She did point out that these are the kids hanging out behind the stadium smoking dope if they are not properly engaged. I can recall these types…

She told the most touching story about her youngest son working construction one summer. He would wake up every morning at 5 am to make sandwiches for all his hispanic co-workers. He couldn’t understand how they could afford to feed their own families making $12 an hour. That kind of empathy and compassion is not recognized on a metric scale. He is a good person, and ultimately, we want our child to be that, right? Intrinsically good. I would take that over straight A’s, any day!

Remember that most people are “just average” and that is okay! She asked the audience how many of us “have an average kid” and I was surprised at how many hands went up. I actually leaned over to my friend to tell her that “I was the average kid!” I never really thought about it so simply before…but I was, and I am okay with that. We all have our “super power,” and being great at everything, was not mine. I think we all need to accept this.

Her final thoughts and advice:

~Evaluate and clarify our values (what is truly important)
~Kids need to have chores and to NOT get paid for them (they need to learn to pitch in)
~Make your own life desirable so your children want to grow up
~Get a hobby other than your child (she reminded us of how “child-centric” we have become…something I know all to well living in Davis)
~The best thing you can do for your children is to be happy yourself! (take time for yourself, your spouse, your friends, etc.)

The lecture concluded with a Q and A moderated by a local somebody in an ill fitted suit who read off questions people had submitted prior to that evening. Due to the ridiculousness of the “wanna-be reporter”  the tone changed. I really wish Madeline just read off the questions and answered them herself instead of cheesy reporter lady, but I guess it did make for a good laugh (at her expense)

Here were some of the facts she said during the Q and A worth sharing…

~17 % of top-tier, ivy-leaguers are self-mutilating
~Perfection is one of the greatest predictors of depression and she warned us to watch for this trait in our own children
~ Within the known adage that we are products of 50% nature and 50% nurture, no one knows what percentage of nurture, is actually parenting (I felt so relieved!)
~Depressed moms have children with emotional problems
~The potential for growth is greater when the child is different from you (in regards to introverts and extroverts)
~People with household incomes of $70,000 have the same potential for happiness as those with incomes of $700,000 (research reveals)

Clearly, I cannot sum up an entire book and lecture in a single blog post in great detail, but I think you all now have a better understanding of how “to teach your children well” and maybe, you will want to read more yourself. My copy of her book, has now been personally addressed by Madeline herself (I know, total dork move)…

In the words of Madeline Levine, “Our job is to help them to know and appreciate themselves deeply; to approach the world with zest; to find work that is exciting and satisfying, friends and spouses who are loving and loyal; and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to society. This is what it means to “teach our children well.”


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