Making Character More Important than Achievement in Your Children

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What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? — Mark 8:36

If you’re a parent, you’ve heard it all before. First it’s the Mozart tapes you have to buy for your developing baby in the womb so your little Johnnie or Mary will be months if not years ahead of other kids who lack such advantages.

Next, it’s the educational toys and gymnastic equipment to ensure that your particular toddler is destined to be academically and athletically ahead of the pack. Then it’s the private tutoring, endless team sports, summer computer camp and mandatory volunteerism all designed to put your grade-schooler on the fast track for Harvard or Princeton. Indeed, shouldn’t all of life revolve around your child’s resume if you’re a good enough parent?

Is there no end to the umpteen ways you should be supporting your children? Unfortunately, if you overemphasize achievement in your children, there isn’t. The success treadmill is something you must run on with your child. Consequently, for the rest of your life you may wonder if you’ve given your child every possible advantage or if you should just quit now and endow your child with a trust fund to pay for all the years of therapy he or she will need to cover your insufficiencies as a parent.

You may laugh at this line of thinking but in fact way too many parents nowadays take it all too seriously. They totally equate their worth as parents with how successful their children turn out as adults. In fact, it may not even occur to some parents that they have worth beyond how their kids turn out or that their children themselves may have some responsibility for their own lives. Sadly, when children’s achievement is preferred over promoting their good character, priorities go awry and everybody suffers.

Perils of excessive achievement focus

Certainly, promoting education, social skills, and physical well-being in our children is a commendable task for parents. However, when we overemphasize achievement in our children many problems occur. First, when children are pressured to be excellent in their accomplishments they learn to equate their value as human beings with the goals they attain. They tell themselves, “I am what I accomplish” rather than “I am a good person no matter what.” They become externally focused for approval, feel compelled to pretend they are more than they are, and never really learn to accept themselves apart from their accomplishments. Talented kids only feel as successful as their last award and children with ordinary talents feel they will never measure up. When we equate our value as humans with what we do, we adopt a shame-based identity and our life happiness is limited no matter what we accomplish.

Overemphasizing success is bad for success.Second, dwelling on achievement actually impedes our long-term career success. All human development — physical, intellectual, social and spiritual — is based on the quality of connections to beloved people in our lives. It’s our favorite teachers, devoted aunts, and challenging peers, not the educational toys, computer labs and Mozart-For-Toddlers Gym that really spur our growth along. When parents overemphasize success, they weaken their children’s ability to bond with all adults and limit their use of human resources.

Actually, children exposed to early imposed childhood learning experiences through technology do have a slight edge for a while over kids who lack those experiences but they don’t learn for learning sake, lose that edge over other kids in the long run, and actually become disinterested in what they have learned. Psychological studies show that children who are praised for their accomplishments give up too quickly on learning when they have setbacks and stop trying to accomplish. Other children who are praised for their efforts alone no matter what they accomplish typically persist and score higher on achievement tests and physical feats. Overemphasizing success is bad for success.

Finally, children who live in the shadow of their parents’ expectations lose the ability to feel successful on their own and they lose faith in themselves. Rather than streaking across the sky like comets ablaze with their own talents they instead remain forever trapped like dead planets orbiting around their parent’s gravity field and never finding their own spark. To exist, our children need to be set free of what we want for them.

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What is character and why is it so important?

Character describes the unique way we form relationships with ourselves and others. We are said to have good character if we generally accept ourselves, act with integrity and respect the rights and needs of others. Knowing our own needs, having a moral compass, being compassionate to others, and sticking up for what we believe in now matter what advantages we lose are all aspects of good character. Today many parents and educators are reluctant to even discuss character in children because such explorations hearken back to the old days of excessive moralism and rigid standards of right and wrong.

Indeed the world nowadays is more complex and challenging for us all. It’s also a world in which people are afraid to take authoritative stances for fear of being seen as unhip. However, in denying the importance of character building in our children we have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

The fact is that some behaviors are right and wrong and many children these days need a lot of help with their moral judgment, emotional self-regulation, and social skills. In fact, the very things that make for good character — impulse control, delaying gratification, predicting and understanding our impact on others, and persisting through adversity — are exactly the very qualities that make achievement and success possible in the world.

A recent university study of college students found that the single best predictor of future academic and work success is whether the students were made to do house chores during childhood. Most success in the work world is the result of discipline and persistence, not giftedness and inspiration. The world is full of talented people who might have been somebody but failed due to personal reasons.

Being ordinary and disciplined often propels us to success. When asked what made him so successful, Thomas Alva Edison once said, “Success is 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration.” Most current psychological research supports this view. Not only does having good character allow us the joy of self-respect, it also tends to make us successful in work and relationships.

How culture distorts success and why we allow it

We live in a culture that equates happiness with material success, believes that image is everything and endorses competition at all cost. Clearly advertisers cannot sell us more cars, cosmetics, and jewelry if you and I are already happy just being ourselves living a moderate life style — driving a dependable used car or wearing a charming hand-me-down-surrounded by beloved friends and family. Thus media creates artificial need.

Through media images we are made to feel insecure about ourselves — not thin enough, not rich enough, not attractive enough, not enough period — unless we buy certain products. In worse case scenarios we can rely on the miracles of the drug industry to make us elated, peppy, and focused. Through advertising, individual achievement at all cost is idealized and many of us are brainwashed into equating success in the corporate world — purchasing power — with personal happiness.

This corporatization of America plays out in the lives of parents, as they cannot imagine their children ever being content without exalted career success. Such rigidity is only intensified by social distrust and fear-mongering in our post 911 world. Media fostered traumatic stress — gloom, doom and paranoia — cause many of us parents to turn our children into corporate kids from the get-go. We mistakenly believe that if corporations are good enough for us, they are even better for our children.

Some of us are more prone to allow culture to dictate our parenting lives. We may carry so much guilt about our long work hours and time away from kids, we feel we have to indulge our children with material comforts as a form of atonement. Sadly, even while being very caring to our children in their everyday lives, we may have lost faith in our own emotional sufficiency as parents. It’s like nothing we ever do will make us feel good enough as parents.

Such emptiness makes us prone to media advertising, undermines the value of the love we already offer our children, and typically prompts our children to be on a treadmill of success so that we parents can feel good about ourselves. Also, some of us see our children as extensions of ourselves. How can we possibly allow our children to meander through life marching to the beat of their own drummer and perhaps not achieve when we ourselves are chained to our corporate desk all day and equate our total worth with what we do? Some of us keep our children on a treadmill of success to avoid facing gaps in our own identity.

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Raising responsible and successful kids

Once I asked a friend of mine who is raising a precocious four-year-old daughter what is the secret of his success. He said, “I don’t know. My wife and I don’t think about it that much. All I know is that we have rules at home, we play a lot and every time I see our daughter all I see is her beautiful eyes, happy smile, and rosy cheeks.” Certainly this is a dad in love with his daughter.

He went on to say how their daughter gets along with everybody, is totally curious about the world, and has an amazing vocabulary. Clearly, he answered my question. Having rules, having fun and offering unconditional positive regard makes all the difference in the world. Who his daughter is as a human being and how he regards her is way more important than how she acts and what she accomplishes. Rules and treasuring children is the key to responsible and successful kids.

Rules and treasuring children is the key to responsible and successful kids.What are some of these rules? Have your children learn self-forgiveness and respect for others. Enough cannot be said about the value of learning manners, doing house chores, sending thank-you notes, anticipating the feelings and needs of others, taking an unpopular stance, learning the work ethic, being disciplined and organized, earning their own way and contributing to charity, and making amends to those they have harmed. I can suggest Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age by Daniel J. Kindler. It’s our character, not our achievements, that makes us great.

Finally, let’s have more faith in ourselves as parents. Let us keep an eye on the bigger picture — that we are already good enough for our children no matter how insufficient or inept we are at times. If you have any doubts, just ask your kids. Most kids say their parents are already doing a great job. Also, trust your children more and be detached from their achievements. They aren’t dummies. If they see you working on your own personal growth and learning, they will do the same in their own way and on their own schedule. All children have an innate compelling hunger  to learn and succeed and will do so if only we parents stay out of their way. While we provide the kindling for learning in safety, material comfort, and varied opportunities for growth, our children provide the spark and burning desire for learning.

They already have it in them to succeed. They cannot help doing so. They own their own lives. They are the experts on themselves. They are going to places we’ve never imagined them going to. Our amazing children cannot help being responsible  and successful if no matter what they do, we stare into their eyes and see their loveliness.

John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.   Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990).  

This article was first published in the March 2006 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commission on some of the links on this page, at no cost to you.

Last Updated on February 17, 2022

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