All devoted parents want to raise their children to be successful. We want to give our kids the best shot at creating a good life for themselves. However, it is important that we understand just how we, as individuals and parents, define success.
How do you define success for your child? Perhaps it means achieving higher grades and going further in school than you did. Maybe, watching your toddler pick up a football or tennis racquet in two hands, you envision a future as a professional athlete. It could be that you have your own unrealized dream that you’d be thrilled to see them pursue. Maybe success, to you, is simply raising a happy, healthy child to become a well-adjusted, self-supporting adult.
However we choose to define success for our children, our job becomes to mold, shape and cajole them to stay on the proper path. When they comply with our expectations, they naturally earn our acceptance and approval. When they don’t comply, battles ensue, and it becomes a tug of war. We look for new ways to get them on track, over and over again — a phenomenon I refer to as the hamster wheel of parenting.
You may be very familiar with the hamster wheel, waking up every morning feeling like you’re living in the movie Groundhog Day, repeating your admonitions from one day to the next without seeing any progress. Just like every day before, you must remind your child to take his lunch, do her homework, make his bed, stop shrieking, follow your rules, keep her hands to herself, stop talking back, get off the computer… The list goes on. You’re stressed out and exhausted. Your child misbehaves and struggles. Will it never end? Must it be this way?
Thankfully, the answer is no. You can end it. There is a way to change it, to break this cycle and build a more cooperative relationship with your child. I call it “Leading with Acceptance.”
Children — in fact, all of us — have a fundamental need to be accepted for who they – we — are. Acceptance of who a person is (what I call the CoreSelf, not to be confused with how one behaves, which is learned behavior), is any healthy relationship’s starting point. In no relationship is this more critical than the parent-child relationship. It is, perhaps, our own desire for acceptance that drives us to produce the “perfect” child, who reflects well on us, who mirrors us as an ideal.
By accepting who your child is, your child feels more secure and is therefore more receptive to guidance. When we accept who our children are — their core selves—every member of the family thrives. Defiance lessens and sibling rivalry fizzles. The hotspots that cause conflict weaken and fade away.
It is when parents fail to accept who our child is that we enter a frustrating loop of misunderstanding, miscommunication and mistakes made. Lack of acceptance leads to disconnection from parents, acting out and seeking acceptance wherever it can be found, which can, in its worst form, lead to high-risk behavior and a potentially tragic downward spiral.
When a child does not feel accepted, their instinct is to conceal the part of themselves breeding the conflict. A child who feels he must hide a part of himself lives in fear and lacks confidence. We cannot be our best unless we are confident about ourselves. How many of us fail to shine because we think we must remain hidden, submerging a part of ourselves that is crying to break free?
Think back to how you first defined success for your child when you began to read this article. Typically, in that model, we accept our children conditionally: only when they satisfy our idea of how they should act, or what’s best for them, by following the path that we feel is best. We set things up so that, in order to gain our acceptance and approval, our child must stay on the success track that we have defined, constantly achieving our conditional benchmarks. We cannot meet our children’s fundamental need for acceptance this way. The hamster wheel model reminds us of the futility of this approach.
Researchers are coming to similar conclusions. Challenge Success is a project at Stanford University’s School of Education that helps parents, schools and kids find healthier and more effective paths to success than the hyper-competitive, academic achievement-oriented, within-the-box culture that does not work for many children. They include a focus on the social and emotional skills that children need to possess in order to become healthy and motivated.
Former Wall Street lawyer-turned-filmmaker Vicki Abeles addresses these concerns in her 2009 award-winning documentary, The Race to Nowhere, which explores the dark side of our culture of achievement and “the dangerous toll it takes on children and their families.” As Abeles states, “…our children’s well-being comes first — and well before the ‘perfect’ college acceptance, before the championship soccer game, before the straight-A report card.” In one scene, a parent indicates that he doesn’t understand why his daughter collapsed from stress, because “she’s a good kid.” The daughter’s counselor shrewdly points out that, no, she is a good performer, and that the father doesn’t actually know whether she is a good kid or not.
When we Lead with Acceptance, we are taking the time to see who our child really is, not just focusing on how we want them to behave. When we, as parents, make this critical leap from seeing our children only in terms of who we want them to be to seeing them for who they really are, we make a leap that will bring our family closer together, generating a strong, healthy, loving bond that will last a lifetime.
Nancy Rose, “The Acceptance Advocate,” is an author and speaker who just released her first book, Raise the Child You’ve Got—Not the One You Want. She has two grown sons and lives in the Napa Valley. Learn more at www.nancyjrose.com.