Parents don’t have anything close to complete control and in most cases should not shoulder all the blame when things don’t turn out well. But parenting does matter. And to the extent that parents can have a serious impact on the goals, strategies, and personal philosophies of their children, here are four key guideposts to excellence:
In 1931, a young Japanese violinist and instructor named Shinichi Suzuki was teaching a violin class composed mostly of young men. After class one day he was approached by the father of a four-year-old boy: would he consider teaching the gentleman’s son?
Suzuki was startled and dumbfounded. He had no idea if a four-year-old could learn to play violin and little idea how to instruct him. While rehearsing shortly afterward, though, a profound thought struck him: virtually all Japanese children learn to speak Japanese – early, and with precision. “The children of Osaka speak the difficult Osaka dialect,” Suzuki thought to himself. “[They] are unable to speak the Tohoku dialect, but the Tohoku children speak it. Isn’t that something of an accomplishment?”
The obvious lesson, Suzuki surmised, was this: through extraordinary repetition, parental persistence, and strong cultural reinforcement, every young child masters this steep technical challenge. Why couldn’t this lesson apply just as directly to music?
So Suzuki did accept four-year-old Toshiya Eto as a pupil and began to develop a method of instruction he called the “mother-tongue method.” He emphasized heavy parent involvement, steady practice, memorization, and lots of patience. (In retrospect, the parallels between Suzuki’s approach and young Mozart’s musical development are uncanny.) Little Toshiya Eto responded beautifully, prompting Suzuki to recruit more young pupils and refine his methods further. He came to quickly believe, in fact, that early musical training has an overwhelming advantage over later training and that it was a gateway to an enlightened life.
He also began to attract attention. A few years into his radical experiment, Suzuki featured several young students in a public performance. A local newspaper became fixated on the marvels of three-year-old Koji Toyoda, who played one of Dvorak’s “Humoresques” on a one-sixteenth-size violin. “A Genius Appears!” ran the headline. Suzuki was horrified by this interpretation. “[Before the concert], I had told journalists: talent is not inherent or inborn, but trained and educated:I had put emphasis on this and had repeated it.” The message was just as important to Suzuki as his method: gifts and talents, he was convinced, were not exclusive to the privileged few; with the right training and persistence, anyone could achieve remarkable success.
It begins with a simple faith that each child has enormous potential and that it is up to us to muster whatever resources we can to exploit that potential. Rather than wonder if their child is among the “gifted” chosen few, parents should believe deeply in the extraordinary potential of their children. Without that parental faith, it is highly unlikely that significant achievement will occur.
2. Support, don’t smother
Imagine, for a moment, that the day your child is born, the doctor gives you a choice of two infant nutritional supplements. The first will transform your child into an astonishing prodigy who, in adulthood, will probably fall back into mediocrity and possibly develop severe emotional problems. The second will produce an emotionally balanced child who is highly unlikely to be a tiny star athlete or musician early on, but who will slowly gather the tools to become a confident, enlightened person with solid relationships and a deep belief in the value of hard work. In the long run, he will have the resources to achieve greatness as an adult.
This stark choice may seem a little absurd, but unconsciously, it is the choice that many parents make.
“You could call it the Britney Spears Syndrome,” says Columbia University psychiatrist Peter Freed, “a clear model for how the narcissistic parent injures a child’s sense of self by attaching high achievement to love.”
It all begins, explains Freed, with a parent who has grown up believing that, in order to be liked, he must be exceptional in some way. The parent subsequently showers his own children with affection after each accomplishment and shuns them after failure. “The parent beams when the child performs well, and then withdraws love when he’s underperforming,” says Freed. In early adulthood, Freed explains, the child will inevitably struggle with social and emotional challenges (as everyone does) and find that he doesn’t have a deep emotional reservoir to fall back on. The foundations of love and trust are corrupted by what he experienced as a child. The child victim of a narcissistic parent frequently has a difficult time forming stable life partnerships.
The flip side, says Freed, is a parent who offers unconditional and unshifting love that is decidedly not connected to achievement. “Non- narcissistic parents follow the child’s lead,” he explains. “They’re very good at limit-setting and setting high expectations, but they will wait to see what the kid wants to do and not become anxious if he isn’t high- achieving early on. Their attitude is that the most important thing you’re doing in childhood is making friends and being an active part of the community. If the team wins, they’ll be happy, but if the team has trouble, they’ll have them over and watch a movie.” New science shows genes and environment are deeply intertwined – read the excerpt here.
There is, in other words, a right way and a wrong way to direct your kids toward achievement. Early exposure to resources is wonderful, as is setting high expectations and demonstrating persistence and resilience when it comes to life challenges. But a parent must not use affection as a reward for success or a punishment for failure.
3. Pace and persist
“It’s not that I’m so smart,” Albert Einstein once said. “It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Einstein’s simple statement is a clarion call for all who seek greatness, for themselves or their children. In the end, persistence is the difference between mediocrity and enormous success.
The big question is, can it be taught? Can persistence be nurtured by parents and mentors?
“The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Robert Cloninger, a Washington University biologist. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”
This jibes well with Anders Ericsson’s finding about deliberate practice and with the ascetic philosophy of Kenyan runners: an emphasis on instant gratification makes for bad habits and no effective long-term plan. The ability to delay gratification opens up a whole new vista for anyone looking to better herself.
It also conjures up a classic study by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, who in the early 1970s offered a group of four-year-olds a choice: they could have one marshmallow immediately or wait a short while (until the researcher got back from an “errand”) for two marshmallows. The results:
- One-third of the kids immediately took the single marshmallow.
- One-third waited a few minutes but then gave in and settled for the single marshmallow.
- One-third patiently waited fifteen minutes for two marshmallows.
At the time, it impressed Mischel and his colleagues that so many very young children had the self-discipline to wait indefinitely for a larger reward. But the real lesson came after comparing the SAT scores of the original nonwaiting (instant gratification) group to the waiting (delayed gratification) group, he found the latter scored an average of 210 points higher. Those with an early capacity for self- discipline and delayed gratification had gone on to much higher academic success. The delayed-gratification kids were also rated as much better able to cope with social and personal problems.
Strategies like these prove that kids can learn to distract themselves from objects of desire, learn to abstract those desires, learn to monitor their own progress, and so on. “Children will have a distinct advantage beginning early in life,” Mischel concluded, “if they use effective self-regulatory strategies to reduce frustration in situations in which self- imposed delay is required to attain desired goals.”
Any parent can adopt basic strategies to encourage self-discipline and delayed gratification. Here are two:
- Model self-control. Behave as you’d want your child to behave, now and in the future. Don’t buy, eat, or grab whatever you want whenever you want it. The more self- control you demonstrate, the more your child will absorb.
- Give kids practice. Don’t immediately respond to their every plea. Let them learn to deal with frustration and want. Let them learn how to soothe themselves and discover that things will be all right if they wait for what they want.
4. Embrace failure
In the sometimes counterintuitive world of success and achievement, weaknesses are opportunities; failures are open doors. The only true failure is to give up or sell your children short.
Developmental biologists stress that all of human development is set up to be a response to problems and failures. In other words, parents are not supposed to make things easier for kids.
Instead, they are supposed to present, monitor, and modulate challenges. The great success stories in our world come about when parents and their children learn to turn straight into the wind and gain satisfaction from marching against its ever-increasing force.
From The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk Copyright © 2010 by David Shenk. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.