Building better adults. The science is in.

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Okay, it’s official. Science has done it. They have the tools and they can build one. The future of tomorrow is here today. They have finally deciphered the arcane impulses that govern our children and unveiled the alchemical process that will unerringly result in the rearing of a perfect child. If that whiffs of nonsense, then your nose is operating as it should. Nevertheless, an article in the independent, which draws on psychological research from the Harvard Grant Study, the longest longitudinal study ever undertaken, has identified 13 key indicators of a child’s future success and rather unsurprisingly it comes down to the parents. Many of these are common sense and you may find yourself mumbling ‘tick’ to many of them, but there may we one or two that give some pause for thought (or discussion if the fancy takes you…comments welcome in the box below). So what do the parents of these wunderkids have in common? Well, before we get started I should point out that, for the sake of expediency, I have forgone the tedious enterprise of listing the various authorities, professional bodies, contributors and mountain of statistics relating to this study. In this way we can get to the meat of things that bit quicker. Be assured the research that underpins this blog is robust and the steady stream of contributors (North American, European et al) are luminous, esteemed and sufficiently eminent.

1.They’re not afraid to let their kid’s get their hands dirty –

They’re not suggesting that these parents are sending their offspring to the workhouse, but rather that little things like doing the dishes, taking out the rubbish etc can teach them important things about life i.e the notion that things don’t simply happen… that sometimes we do things we don’t like…that we struggle. These ideas are the stepping stones to empathy, to learning that humanity is in many ways a collective in which we all, in one way or another, must contribute. A sense of entitlement is the worst barrier to progress. It stultifies and inhibits creativity and progress. The values learnt here enable a child to become a future valued and productive member of a team and to take on individual burdens and succeed independently.

2. They teach their children to get on –

It’s never too early to start. Children do not suddenly decide to cooperate or to be helpful. They don’t wake up one day as a fully fledged problem solver. These things are taught. It is a constant and painstaking process, like water shaping limestone. Behaviour, bad or good, isn’t ignored. It is questioned, unpicked, applauded when warranted and used as a chance to learn. The study showed a significant correlation between the social skills displayed in nursery and primary school with success as adults two decades later. It seems the same skills and behaviours displayed in these younger years were mirrored to a surprising degree in later life (they were observed over the course of 20 years), translating into success in the workplace and relationships for those who were more emotionally and socially developed and regrettably poorer life outcomes for those who were less so. Indeed, the former were far more likely to earn a college degree and have a full-time job by age 25 than those with limited social skills. Conversely a significant number of those who illustrated poorer social skills in their primary years were much more likely to be in a poorer demographic in adulthood with higher incidences of criminal activity, addiction and lower levels of employment and a higher dependence on the state.

3. They set the bar high –

This a tricky rope to traverse. Obviously, the helicopter mum phenomenon is something that has been derided in previous blogs, but one cannot dismiss the strong effect of expectation on a child’s attainment. And this makes sense. If you plan for university and assume it as a given, that child will attend, this is often what happens. Conversely, if there is an expectation that a child will leave school at 16 then that is what is likely to happen. This falls in line with another psych finding: the Pygmalion effect, which states “that what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Simply put, kids, in the absence of a a strong notion of what they want from life, tend to default to their parent’s expectations and achieve accordingly.

4. They get on with one another –

Conflict is a killer. It bleeds into the pores, the cells… everything. Environments where conflict is pervasive, invariably translates into poorer life outcomes. This stands true for all configurations, i.e a single parent family with little conflict in day to day life is better for life outcomes than a two parent family where hostility is prevalent. This works similarly in a divorce. When a father without custody has frequent visitations for example, it can be beneficial or detrimental to a child’s adjustment according to the level of conflict accompanying such visits. Perhaps more surprisingly, it was found that although adults still reported some pain and distress when recalling a childhood divorce, feelings of regret and loss were more likely to be experienced in the children of high conflict families.

5 They’ve got a few ologies –

Stated starkly like this, such a statement may seem controversial, if not a little offensive. However, breaking it down, it makes some sense. The study is not suggesting that a good mother must attain academically, but rather that in a retrospective examination of their test groups a larger proportion of successful children tend to come from adults who have achieved academically. It is worth pointing out that it is not immediately clear whether the success in question refers to academic success or general life success. If it is the former, which I suspect it is, then it is a narrower definition of success that excludes important considerations. One may after all be academically successful but unhappy. The point here, however, is not a revolutionary one. It stands to reason that parents who have been to university will place the same expectation on their children. It’s not all that surprising that children of teenage single mothers were less likely to go on to college. In this, we find ourselves circling back to point two. One should be clear however, that although a parent’s education does correlate with a child’s future educational attainment, it ignores the levelling effect of aspiration. My father, a man forced to leave education early on, is a great example of this. Just ask his children!

6. They teach their kids math early on –

It’s an advantage to inculcate the importance of these skills early on. The concepts acquired here will help developing minds order and systemise the world around them. Early mastery is a predictor not only of future mathematical ability but, odd as it seems, of future reading ability.

7. They get on with their kids –

Children are not dogs. Simply barking at them to do certain things and responding to their physical needs is not enough. Being mindful and available, responding sensitively to a child’s signals gives them a secure base to feel secure in the world and in themselves. This early investment is of inestimable importance as it helps form a secure core identity that accrues value over a lifetime. A study of children born into poverty found that children who received “sensitive caregiving” in their first three years not only did better in academic tests in childhood, but had healthier relationships and greater academic attainment in their 30s.

8. They’re not pulling their hair out –

Time spent with children was not a predictor of childhood well-being or achievement. Simply putting in more hours was not in itself found to be beneficial. Similarly, intensive mothering was also ill advised and was noted by the study to be often counter productive (take note ‘helicopters’). The key here is quality. One significant finding of the study was that the level of stress exhibited by a parent or parents had a direct effect on their children. We all know what it’s like, trying to find time to spend with the kids whilst juggling work and other commitments. It’s a tough job, but doing it stressed could be detrimental to their well- being. This a prime example of the adage, sometimes less is more. Pick the good moments (or the better moments) if possible. Don’t force the time together out of a misplaced sense of guilt. Take the time away, let them watch that movie instead, regroup, de-stress and find your window, otherwise you risk emotional contagion, which over time can be really quite damaging. This advice has the danger of sounding like an eye rolling ‘first world’ problem, but the notion of contagion is a very real psychological phenomenon. It denotes those times where we literally catch feelings from one another. I know it still sounds flakey, right? But consider it for a moment. I’m sure we’ve all been with someone we feel obligated to spend time with, someone who is perhaps not the beacon of joy we consider ourselves to be… someone or some ‘them’ who can be quite gloomy and oppressive. Such occasions can literally leave you feeling wiped out. Now imagine this feeling over a sustained period of time. Likewise, a parent who is frustrated or exhausted may unintentionally transfer an emotional burden that takes a very real toll on the little ones they are trying to protect. Terms like projection and introjection also come to mind when reading these findings and these unconscious ways of relating can lead to a false self in our children which again is very real and damaging.

9. It’s the trying that counts –

This is not some wishy washy liberal hippy nonsense. It has been shown that the origin of success in a child’s mind (how it is perceived) correlates to future attainment. Children that are taught that intelligence and creativity are not fixed or static things fare better. They don’t see awards as a simple affirmation of what’s already there, the consequence of some natural reserve of intelligence or a genetic legacy passed down from mother and father to son and daughter, but rather as the result of something they have persevered and grown over time. In this way failure is not failure, but an obstacle to overcome. Encourage a growth mindset and a lack of success is seen as a challenge to succeed. To fail on these terms becomes an opportunity to grow and to learn about themselves. In this, a child will flourish. To fail on fixed terms with a fixed mindset, in which things are finite and entrenched, removes this chance to grow. To fail here is to fail at being themselves, attacking the core of who they consider themselves to be. Failure becomes the enemy and something to be avoided at any and all cost.

10. Mum does the 9-5 –

Controversial perhaps, but studies reveal that daughters of working women were more likely to attend school longer, find a job in a supervisory role and earn up to a quarter more than peers who had stay at home mothers. The same study also concluded that in these households the male offspring took more responsibility for household chores and child care. The point here is in reality fairly benign. It is really about modelling. Children do what their parents do or what they are expected to do and if the latter point is to be believed it would seem to tilt the balance in favour of gender equality! I’ll leave it up to you dear reader to interpret and weigh in on the rest.

11. They’ve got some banknotes stuffed in the mattress –

This is perhaps unsurprising. It’s part of the circular argument encountered in 3 and 5. Simply put, more money – more opportunity. A child is more likely to be better off financially and attain academically if their parents clear the path towards these things. This is not to say a child can’t be successful without such advantages, but the barriers are greater and the struggle harder. This sounds like a narrow definition of success, but if we are honest, financial prosperity does make things easier. Money problems can be a source of conflict in relationships, for example, which finds us back at point 4. Taking the bigger picture, it can insulate our children from the uglier side of this world… living somewhere away from gangs and crime and other limiting effects of poverty. If we stopped to consider how relevant it is, it would probably make for a depressing read. However, there are important caveats here. If such advantages are not tempered by empathetic parenting and grounded in the larger world around them, the outcome for the child in question is not favourable. The life of an insufferable and entitled prima dona is ultimately an empty and unfulfilling one.

12: They are ‘authoritative’ rather than ‘authoritarian’ or ‘permissive’ –

First published in the 1960s, the University of California, Berkeley developmental psychologist Diana Baumride found there are basically three kinds of parenting styles. Permissive: The parent tries to be non – punitive and accepting of the child, Authoritarian: The parent tries to shape and control the child based on a set standard of conduct and Authoritative: The parent tries to direct the child rationally.

The ideal is the authoritative. The child grows up with a respect for authority, but doesn’t feel strangled by it.

13: They teach ‘grit’ –

It’s difficult to fully unpick this attribute, but it’s powerful and immediately known to all of us. It is that unquantifiable, indefinable quality that gives us the strength, courage and resolve to persevere in the face of real adversity and triumph against the odds. In the words of psychologist Angela Duckworth, winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant, “It’s about teaching kids to imagine — and commit — to a future they want to create.”

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