THE BLOG
10/02/2013 04:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Parents: Start Mentoring Your Kids!

Compared to 50 years ago, today's parents have generally abdicated their mentorship stature with children.

In families coming out of the depression, children relied upon their parents for the development of their character, values, sense of purpose and right and wrong -- hence the expression, "As right as Mom and apple pie."

When I was doing prep school admissions 56 years ago, most kids would identify their purpose in life: "To be the best I can be, to help others and leave the world a better place."

Back then, parents were confident in their moral authority and considered schools their allies. They might well say to a teacher, "If he gives you any trouble, you know where his fanny is."

Then, after Sputnik, attitudes began to change. Acceptance to top colleges became the goal, with academic achievement the means. Helping others was hardly mentioned.

When I asked applicants why they wanted to come to our school, this became the typical discourse: "To get better grades." Why? "To get into a better college." Why? "To get a better job." Why? "To make more money." Why? "To... to... to be happy!" (While looking at me as if I had a screw loose.)

I hypothetically offered one candidate a 4.0 transcript from a major university with a guarantee no one would ever discover it was bogus. Would he take it? His eyes lit up with his resounding, "Yes!" Did he have any qualms? "Nope!" So much for a sense of right and wrong.

Today's academic achievement emphasis has taken its toll on the natural development of children, particularly undermining children's critical mentors: parents.

Parents, fearing their children will fall behind in the race to the best college, unwittingly accept the achievement value system and unconsciously abdicate much of their authority to the school system. Whereas 50 years ago parents would see the school's authority as supporting their own, now parents might challenge a teacher's or the school's authority in an effort to support, protect or enhance their child's school performance.

Back then, parents were most concerned about character and right and wrong. Today their greater concern is with academic achievement, a stance that accepts a generally characterless educational system, which includes widespread cheating and bullying, alienation reflected in inherent inequalities, a 22 percent dropout rate and school shootings.

Today's system values students for their academic proficiency, but not for their individuality. So by supporting this system, parents unwittingly end up valuing children for what they can do, not for who they are.

Every child is gifted with a unique potential. While today's education system seeks to put something into children, parents' primary task is to draw out the uniqueness of their children. This sensitivity reassures a child he or she not only has a protector and a provider, but also a mentor -- the source of a deep bond of parent-child trust.

Children from birth depend upon parents for survival. Then as they gain a big-picture sense of their life, they become aware that the quality of their future depends upon how well their parents (1) help them realize their true best and (2) prepare them to be self-sufficient.

When parents fail to effectively fulfill these two responsibilities, youngsters experience inner tension that leads to conflict with their parents. This usually becomes a highly dysfunctional mentoring relationship with the parent unknowingly teaching the youngster to measure self-worth by achievement, rather than true identity.

Young people in this dynamic have a less challenging upbringing, but they know --subconsciously -- they will eventually pay a price for it. On a deep level, they want character more than achievement.

They love their parents and want their parents to be the best they can be, for both their sakes. The conflict is a combination of disappointment, anger and an attempt to change things. If unaddressed in a meaningful way, the conflict may never completely resolve itself.

Our first concern as parents must always be the unrealized uniqueness of our children. Children cannot see in themselves what we parents can see in them. The best thing I had growing up was my mother's belief in me. My trust in her continued even when she signed me up for tap dance class in seventh grade -- the only boy in the class!

Trusting your mentor includes trusting how they are connecting you to the outer world. I didn't then know what my mother saw in me -- but I do know now (even the dance class helped!) She simply had confidence in me as a unique individual -- as she did all her children.

Behind every productive life, there is mentorship, no matter how dysfunctional. We parents have been given that gift. We need to use it wisely.