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Helping Children Build Self-Efficacy

This article was based on the 2016 TED Talk, “How to Raise Successful Kids — Without Over-Parenting,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims:


How to raise successful kids — without over-parenting | Julie Lythcott-Haims


Overinvolved Parents

Parents spend a great deal of time worrying about being involved enough in the lives of their children.  Being there for a child is important but being too involved can be detrimental. Some people feel kids can’t be successful unless parents are protecting and preventing at every turn, micromanaging every moment to steer their kids toward the right colleges and careers.


Helping children build self-efficacy 1


A Check-Listed Childhood

When we raise kids this way, they end up leading a kind of check-listed childhood. We keep them safe and healthy, and we want to be sure they have everything they need to be successful in life.  It’s not just about the grades and the scores, but also the accolades and the awards. We tell our kids that colleges want to see success, initiative, and that you care about others.

With so much emphasis on this ideal of success, there’s little concern for what it feels like to be a kid in this check-listed childhood. There’s no time for free play because everything is structured and must be enriching.  We say we just want them to be happy, but when they come home from school, what we ask about all too often is their homework and their grades. They see in our faces that our approval, that our love, that their very worth, is based on their grades and performance.


Heading Towards Burnout

These kids, regardless of where they end up at the end of high school, they’re breathless, brittle, and a little burned out. They’re a little old before their time, wishing the grown-ups in their lives had said, “What you’ve done is enough, this effort you’ve put forth in childhood is enough.” Now they’re withering under high rates of anxiety and depression, and some of them are wondering if life will ever turn out to have been worth it.


Love and Chores

As parents, we seem to think they will have no future if they don’t get into the colleges or careers we have in mind for them. Or is it that maybe, we’re just afraid they won’t have a future we can brag about to our friends.

If you look at what we’ve done, you’ll see that this overprotection and excessive hand-holding deprives our kids of the chance to build self-efficacy.  This is a fundamental tenet of the human psyche; far more important than the self-esteem they get every time we applaud. Self-efficacy is built when one sees that one’s own actions lead to outcomes.

If children are to develop self-efficacy, and they must, then they have to do more of the thinking, planning, deciding, hoping, coping, trial and error, dreaming, and experiencing life for themselves. Parents need to be less focused on colleges and careers and far more concerned that kids have the habits, mindset, and skills to be successful wherever they go. Kids need parents to provide a foundation for success built on things like love and chores.


Focus on Happiness

Instead of being obsessed with grades and scores, we need to close our technology, put away our phones, and show children the joy that fills our faces when we see them after they’ve been at school all day. Then we have to say, “How was your day? What did you like about today?” They need to know they matter to us as humans, not because of their GPA.

Contrary to what the college rankings racket would have us believe, you don’t have to go to one of the biggest brand name schools to be happy and successful in life. Happy and successful people have gone to state schools, small colleges no one has heard of, community colleges, and some have even flunked out.


Finding Their Own Selves

Maybe if we remove our own egos from the equation, we could accept and embrace the truth that it is hardly the end of the world if our kids don’t go to big brand-name schools. More importantly, if their childhood has not been lived according to a tyrannical checklist, then when they get to college, whichever one it is, they’ll have gone there on their own volition, fueled by their own desire, capable and ready to thrive there.

As parents, it is our job to provide a nourishing environment, to strengthen children through chores and to love them so they can love others and receive love.  The college, the major, the career, that’s up to them. Our goal should not be to make them become what we would have them become but to support them in becoming their own glorious selves.




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