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Success in Parenting -- Avoiding the Happiness and Self-Esteem Traps

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The Aspen Ideas Festival (AIF) is designed as a marketplace of "ideas of consequence." Its purpose, according to Kitty Boone, Director of AIF, is "to bring leaders, problem solvers, deep thinkers and enthused champions to inspire us to imagine the possible for change and progress."

Thus, it is notable that this year, amid subject tracks like Democracy, the Economy, Our Planet, Technology and War and Peace, AIF added a track on "The Child: Raising the 21st Century Child."

I have always wondered why raising children has been viewed primarily as a "how-to" or less serious subject of inquiry. So the very fact that AIF included a program track devoted to Raising the 21st Century Child is noteworthy in itself.

There was one question woven throughout many sessions on The Child this year that was noteworthy, too: What is success in parenting? What do we and what should we want for our children? That, in fact, was the topic of the session I did with Lori Gottlieb, Amy Chua, Larry Cohen and Erika Christakis.

Is it economic success? A common response was that economic success is absolutely necessary -- children need to grow up to be able to support themselves -- and family poverty is crippling, creating what Peter Edelman and his colleagues on a panel called "the lost generation," but this as a goal is not sufficient.

Is it status success? Status success was described as going to the "right" schools and having the "right" jobs. A popular response was to beware of adults imposing a narrow view of success on their children or imposing their own insecurities.

If there was a consistent response to the overall question of what constitutes success in parenting, it was that we shouldn't shield children from making mistakes or if they do, think that the adults in their lives will jump in to rescue them and fix things. Katie Couric told the story of a graduate of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia who took his mother on a job interview. And Erika Christakis told of a student at Harvard emailing a professorto say that he hadn't been aware of an assignment that was due imminently and asking the professor what "WE" were going to do to resolve this situation.

Adults -- teachers and parents -- need to help children understand that making mistakes is a normal part of learning. And when children make mistakes, they need to learn what Paul Tough and others call the character trait of "grit;" that is, trying hard even when experiencing failure. I call the same characteristic a social, emotional and cognitive life skill, the skill of "taking on challenges."

Stories of how to promote this skill were woven throughout the sessions on "The Child." My favorite came from a lunch where the retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen spoke to the Bezos Scholars at AIF, a group of rising high school seniors and their educators as well as students and educators from the African Leadership Academy. Admiral Mullen said that in his first leadership position at 26 years old, he failed miserably -- he crashed his ship into a buoy. Calling this a very bad day, he said: "My report card was F. To recover, I had to fight the system. It took me 11 years to get back on track."

He attributes this eventual recovery to having others who saw his potential and to his own persistence: "I learned to be accountable for my own actions."

His advice to the Bezos Scholars was to have passion and to have multiple options for realizing that passion? "Don't try to run your life through a single straw. Someone, some event will cut it off."

He went on to encourage these young leaders not to give up, but to continue to pursue their passion, wherever they are -- on the top of the heap or on the bottom.

Two well-intentioned strategies were cited in a number of sessions as standing in the way of helping children learn to have grit and to take on challenges: the happiness and the self-esteem traps.

Lori Gottlieb warned against the happiness trap -- the notion that our goal in parenting is to make children happy. That can lead to trying to rescue children. Jonah Lehrer noted that we -- children and adults -- are happiest when we are having flow experiences, fully absorbed in something we care about. Happiness is clearly a by-product, not a goal.

Others, including me, warned against the self-esteem trap. Citing research, including studies by Carol Dweck, it is clear that when adults praise children for seemingly in-born characteristics like being smart, it creates the opposite effect. Children become less willing to take on challenges because they don't want to risk losing their label of smartness. Praising children for their effort and their strategies is much more effective. Like happiness, self-esteem is a by-product of trying hard, making mistakes, failing and learning to go forward toward a goal.

At AIF this year, having a track to consider these issues was significant in itself. Great conversations based on research and experience were sparked. Here's to continuing the conversation of these critically important issues! By increasing the social focus on parenting and child rearing, we can not only "image" but enact "the possible for change and progress."