It’d be nice if there was a secret I could tell you about how to instantly make your kids more successful in school and life. But there is no magic pill, only that old stand-by, hard work. And the funny thing about that is, you can’t force kids to work hard. I suppose you could try, but I’ve rarely seen anything useful come from kids whose parents had to hold their noses to the grindstone. If there’s something close to a secret, perhaps it’s this: Kids work hard when they want to work hard, and this happens only when are motivated to do so by some positive internal goal, and not by fear or because they are worried about disappointing others. They work hard because they value hard work. Instilling kids with values like this is the first step the long road to real success.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to make this happen. Here are five ways to put your kids on the path to extraordinary:
Toot Your Own Horn. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I sound like a broken record when it comes to spreading the gospel of music education. Put simply, every child should play an instrument, and parents should make whatever sacrifices are necessary to put a flute, trumpet, guitar, or tuba in their kid’s hands. I don’t have room here to list all the valuable skills that playing music can help develop, but one of the most important is the ability to listen to others: to make great music, a child must learn to pay attention to what others are playing. Doing so improves focus and teaches a valuable lesson about collaboration.
Be the Example. We’ve probably all seen a parent yelling at her kids to be quiet and perhaps chuckled to ourselves about the mixed signals sent by this gesture. It seems like an easy lesson: for kids to understand why things are important, you have to be consistent. But this isn’t just situational advice. Kids mirror parents and adults in far more depth than we often realize. They internalize our values by watching what we do, which is why it’s essential that we live the way we want them to live. We can stress the importance of being on time until we’re blue in the face, but if we’re constantly late to pick them up from school, that’s what they’re going to remember.
Great Books are Great for a Reason. Kids have two backpacks: the physical one they carry their books in, and the mental backpack where they store all the lessons and experiences they’ll use to help make decisions. A paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird won’t take up much room in the first one, but the wisdom contained within this book can be carried in the mental backpack for a lifetime. There are lessons here about choosing generosity over selfishness, making the right choice even when it’s the difficult one, and standing up for your beliefs. I also recommend Thornton Wilder’s fantastic play Our Town, and anything by Shakespeare (important note: kids are never too young for Shakespeare). A kid with a library card has the world at her fingertips, and when parents read with her, they can serve as map to help make sense of that world.
Do Unto Others. Volunteering is a great way to build character and teach values while making an important contribution to the community. Working at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, visiting an elderly person at a retirement home on a regular basis, or planting trees and helping to beautify your town are all great ways to help kids learn about the importance of selflessness and humility. I know several families who volunteer together on a holiday schedule: on each day off, they pick a different activity and spend a few hours volunteering together. This way, parents get to be the example, reinforcing the positive message.
Patience, My Dears. In today’s on-demand world, kids are taught that anything worth having can be had instantly. This is an incredibly bad lesson, and parents must work to counteract this by instilling kids with patience and focus — the skills that will let them buckle down to achieve the truly great things that invariably take much time and effort. I’ve found that gardening is an excellent choice when it comes to teaching patience. Kids see that reaching their goal is a slow process, one that requires dedicated care and attention at every phase. And since they get to watch their garden grow as they tend to it, they learn that the real pleasure is in the process (though ripe tomatoes are certainly also a pleasure, and tasty!).
You may have noticed that most of these “success” tips don’t have anything to do with school. That’s because making kids extraordinary people is the first step toward making them extraordinary students. All follows from values and character, and in working to instill these, you’ll create kids that you — and the rest of the community and country — can be proud of.
©2009 Rafe Esquith, author of Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World
Rafe Esquith, author of Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, has taught at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles for twenty-four years. He is the only teacher to have been awarded the president’s National Medal of the Arts. His many other honors and awards include the American Teacher Award, Parents magazine’s As You Grow Award, Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life Award, and People magazine’s Heroes Among Us Award. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Barbara Tong.
For more information, please visit www.hobartshakespeareans.org