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Redefining “Success” to Raise Healthier, Happier Kids

October 6, 2009

The push towards academic achievement and success in recent years is taking its toll on our young children. “High stakes” and “high pressure” would aptly describe the high school and college application/admission experience for most teens today. This is especially true of kids in the more “privileged” schools and schools districts where the race for top colleges is more competitive than ever before. Expectations once reserved for a small group of exceptional students are now expected of many.

As a result of this thousands of middle and high schoolers around the country are experiencing “unacceptably high levels of anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, poor physical health, and disengagement from learning.” Teen suicides are on the rise throughout the Unites States. The spate of teen suicides in recent months in the affluent neighborhoods of Palo Alto & Los Altos around Stanford University is by no means an isolated occurrence. (It should be noted, however, that according to research, those who contemplate or attempt suicide are very likely to have a mental illness such as depression or bi-polar disorder,  and such children need the help of mental health services in addition to the support of family and friends.)

According to Challenge Success, an organization with roots in the Stanford University School of Education, “educators, mental health professionals, and business leaders agree that the pursuit of a narrow vision of success often leaves young people lacking the skills most needed to thrive in a rapidly changing world–adaptability, interpersonal and collaborative skills, and the ingenuity and creativity to solve complex problems.

Clearly we need to broaden this narrow point of view, and redefine success to include character building, resilience, creativity and personal expression, connection to family, friends, and community, and enthusiasm in addition to achievement – academic and otherwise. As parents, we need to watch the subtle messages we might be sending to our teen about the importance of grades versus effort. By keeping the focus on effort and genuine learning, we can help reduce unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety surrounding school grades and test scores.

Challenge Success shares a very useful set of guidelines for parents. We are copying them verbatim here for the benefit of our readers-

Define success on your terms

Take time to consider the qualities you hope your children have when they leave the nest. How you define success is analogous to your mission statement as a parent. Without considering this explicitly, many families unwittingly default to the prevailing, narrow notion of success. Resist parent peer pressure and trust your gut.

Maintain play time, down time, and family time. Avoid over-scheduling

Young children need ample time for their most important job: unstructured play. Kids of all ages need restorative time to reflect and dream. And families need time together: at meals, on weekends, and during vacations to connect and form lasting bonds.

Love your children unconditionally

The basis for healthy emotional development is a sense of being lovable.  Make sure your children know that they are loved for who they are, not only for how well they perform. Value the uniqueness of each child.

Discipline and set limits

There are two sides to parenting: warmth and discipline. Warmth is easier, but discipline is equally important. Children feel secure and cared for when their parents are willing to set limits. This is how children learn important skills like self-control and frustration tolerance. Don’t worry about your child’s temporary anger or indignation when you set limits. It will pass.

Allow kids space to develop on their own and make mistakes

Kids today experience unprecedented levels of adult direction and intervention. Whenever possible, let kids play and work on their own. Encourage appropriate risk-taking and allow kids to make mistakes–and learn from them. Self-direction and risk-taking breed resilience, creative thinking, and long-term success.

Build responsibility at home and in the community

Have children help in age-appropriate ways with chores around the house. This requires you to take time to show children how to do the chores and to allow tasks to get done differently (and maybe not as well) as if you did them yourself. It also reminds children that they are a contributing, capable part of a family team, not an entitled member served by parents. As they get older, encourage children to be active participants in their community, and set an example by being involved yourself.


Set limits on the amount of time your children watch TV, play screen-based games, instant message, and use the computer recreationally. Less than an hour or so per day is a good starting point. Children need ample time to interact with real people, without technology, and to be in the natural world.

Ease performance pressure

For many young people, the questions parents ask most often are: “How did you do on the test? Have you done your homework?” The subtle message to kids is that performance and results matter most. Instead, emphasize the primacy of effort, hard work, resilience, and intellectual curiosity by asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions such as, “How did the day go?”

Debunk college myths

Make sure your children understand that there are many different paths to success after high school. There are many, many excellent colleges, all with different attributes and personalities; none right for everyone. Help your child find the “right fit.” Some students may fare better attending a junior college or other post-secondary option (such as gap year, travel programs, or trade schools).

For more ideas on how your community and your child’s school can work together with you on this, check out the Challenge Success website.

SmartBean has also cataloged a bunch of books on the subject –



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