The Best Gifts I Can Give My Children to Ensure Their Success

05/04/2015 03:44 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016
Rachel Garlinghouse

Like many parents, I feel an immense amount of pressure. Pressure to make sure my kids can count to ten in Mandarin by toddlerhood. Pressure to help my children find out where they are most talented by the time they are in kindergarten in order to make sure they practice (at least five nights a week) the skills necessary to excel in that particular area. Pressure to look good, perform well and always be polite. (God forbid your child try to climb up the slide at the playground!) Pressure to make sure they are in at least four activities during any given season to ensure their success in life.

I grew up to be a determined, hard-working, independent, compassionate and educated individual. I worked three jobs during college to pay my tuition. I have a master's degree, and I taught college composition for eight years, starting at the ripe age of 22. I'm now a book author, freelance writer and speaker, things I manage to do while mothering my three children. My husband and I have been married over 10 years, we own a lovely home and live in a clean, safe, and beautiful community. We are living the American Dream.

During a recent visit to my mom and dad's, I realized that I arrived at these things not by my parents cramming my every waking hour with structured activities, preparation for testing and lessons, but by the exact opposite: time and space.

While my parents played with my kids, I spent some time meandering around my childhood "stomping ground," relishing in the sunshine, the fresh air and the memories. It was under the tree house where my siblings and I would play restaurant, serving up birdseed soup and mud pies. It was in the big red barn that we would play hide-and-seek. It was on the tire swing where we would shout out made-up songs. It was on the screened-in porch where I spent hours filling notebooks with story ideas. We drank from the outdoor water pump after spending a day playing mermaids and Marco Polo in the swimming pool. We would make bouquets out of my mom's flowers and ride bikes up and down the big hill, stopping by the apple trees for a snack. We would capture fireflies in Mason jars and play with frogs and barn cats. We laughed as our feet were tickled by moss in the front yard before we would stumble inside the kitchen at the end of each day smelling of dirt, our clothes grass-stained and our cheeks rosy from the sun.


We were happy and creative, free to invent, explore and imagine. Our job, as children, was to play. And by playing, we learned how to think for ourselves, how to rely on and trust our siblings, how to be bored (because in doing so, we fostered creativity) and how to enjoy what we had.


Visiting my parents' home reinforced my commitment to letting my kids, well, be kids. I allowed myself to rejoice in my decision to put my oldest daughter in half-day kindergarten despite the "are you sure that's a good idea?" warnings from fellow parents. I thought about the gifts all around my children that they have been able to use and appreciate -- a swing set, bicycles, art supplies, balls -- because they've been home and not in an activity directed by adults, activities with rules and boundaries. I've seen them relish in relaxation, exploration, imagination and contemplation.

My kids don't need to be in a sport to learn teamwork. The three of them are a team, figuring out how to work through their conflicts due to differences in opinion, age, ability and personality. They are learning about forgiveness, grace, compromise, patience and empathy.

My kids to don't need to find their "gift" at the ages of 6, 4 and 2. They are free to explore a myriad of experiences, enjoying many different places, people and things.

My kids don't need to be in classrooms and gyms and carefully-manicured sports fields more in order learn to socialize or play. They know, quite naturally, how to play and how to enjoy the company of others. Even better, they enjoy the company of themselves, comfortable in their own skin, not relying on trophies or glossy ribbons or coaches to tell them they are fantastic human beings.

My kids don't need to attend a structured class or camp in order to be "well rounded." They can create art every afternoon, drawing on the driveway with sidewalk chalk. They can freely run, dance, jump, bike, and roll in our back yard. They learn Spanish from a friend who speaks Spanish as they play together at the park.

We've been able to strike a great balance, so far, as parents. Our oldest two children are each in one activity. At this time, it's gymnastics for one hour a week. Last winter, it was basketball for my middle daughter, where she was the only girl and the youngest child on her team, joyfully running the ball down the court to score a basket. The beauty was in the smile on her face, not the number of baskets she scored. My oldest daughter is looking forward to participating in a two-hour-a-day art camp at the university for two weeks this summer. As a former educator, I'm all for pursuing passions and learning more about that which interests the child. But I want the drive to be genuine and the encouragement to be gentle and age-appropriate.

After the child's activity, it's back home to do cartwheels in the grass, eat dinner as a family and leave a ring of dirt around the bathtub before going to bed before eight o'clock. I get this is counter-cultural. I know we are sometimes perceived as rebels, as lazy, or as parents who just don't "get it," how the world works these days. But we are purposeful and intentional. We will let our kids be kids.

The problem with succumbing to the constant pressure to push our kids to be as successful, as we define it, as possible is that there is no finish line. Our kids and us, as the parents, can never, ever do enough. We push and we schedule and we hurry, and there are no guarantees this combination of lessons, activities, studying, late-nights and non-stop weekends will produce the results we desire. This pressure causes us to second-guess our every move, to drain our bank accounts in the hopes that our children will be the next baseball stars, and to forgo family dinners, adequate sleep, and enjoying the homes and belongings we've worked so hard for. We sacrifice our marriages and friendships to grasp at possibility. It causes us to see our children as products rather than people.

I'm incredibly thankful for the childhood I didn't have, one full of everything that stifles and limits and suffocates what children are made to do: just be. And I hope I have the courage, conviction, and determination to continue give my children the two simple things that made me the successful woman I am today: time and space.