Helping Children to Reach Their Full Potential – Don’ts

Parents all over the world want the best for their children. We all wish for our offspring to be happy and also want them to be successful and to reach their full potential. Would it not be great if we could have both? But what exactly does being successful mean? Oxford dictionary defines potential as a talent, excellence or ability that may or may not be developed and success as the accomplishment of an aim or a purpose and the attainment of fame, wealth or social statusBut does being rich, famous or having the best grades in school necessarily mean reaching one’s full potential? We live in a world that strives for excellence. That implies looking at where you are and do all you can to become better. And that means surpassing ordinary standards. It can be an exhausting process, during which children might get frustrated, stressed, and lose motivation. If we want to help our child to be his/her best self, here is what I think we should not do. 

#1. Don’t have (unrealistic) expectations. 

Setting expectations is our responsibility as parents. They communicate to our children what is important to us and establish a standard towards which they can strive. But this is just like a double-edged sword. Instead of motivating them and constructively pushing them to do their best, expectations can hinder our children’s development because they will learn that we value results over everything else. What would put a different spin on the problem is setting goals together with our kids and (instead of focusing only on the outcome), focus on the process that leads there. This way, if the goal is not reached, they will look at what brought them there, see the improvement they made (even if they are “not there yet”), and feel proud of themselves. The only expectations we should communicate to our children are those over which they have control: effort expectations. If they meet our expectations, they will gain competence and intrinsic motivation and if they don’t, even if they are crushed by the failure, they know they have what it takes to do better next time.  

 #2. Don’t underestimate emotional intelligence.

MHS Assessments defines EI as “a set of emotional and social skills that influence the way we perceive and express ourselves, develop and maintain social relationships, cope with challenges, and use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way”. Teach children how to recognise their emotions, how to accept them, how to deal with them and how to be empathic. There is more to success than cognitive ability. EI can make the difference between a highly effective and an average professional contributor. Helping children develop social and emotional skills is one of the most important things we can do to prepare them for a healthy future.

#3. Don’t make learning a chore.

Nobody likes to learn because they have to! Turning learning into a chore takes the fun out of it. We often hear that learning must be fun in order for kids to enjoy it. Fun has a positive effect on learners’ motivation levels, determining what we learn and how much information we retain. But to be realistic, learning can’t always be fun! We don’t always enjoy it, but if it is engaging, I believe children take ownership of it and give it meaning. That’s what makes it worth remembering. Learning doesn’t always have to be fun, but it has to be engaging!

#4. Don’t praise.

The most common praise (Good job! That’s great! Way to go!) lacks specificity. It doesn’t tell children what precisely they did well. This way, they will not know what step or behaviour to repeat in the future to have the same “great” outcome. Plus, it will turn them into “praise junkies”. They will look for approval in everything they do and they will expect praise for every little thing. In the same way, it doesn’t help children to be praised for their intelligence, either. It will not build their self-esteem. The only thing that would do to them is make them equate failure with stupidity. Rather than saying empty words like “Good Job!”, it is more helpful to describe to our child what we see and to try getting to the thought process behind the outcome. For example, if our son is showing us a drawing he made, instead of saying “Wow! It looks great!” we could say “Do YOU like it? How hard did you work on it? I can see so many details and colours! How did you decide to colour the horse blue?” Another thing you could do when you see your child doing something “great” is say nothing! Kids know when they do well. By letting them come to this realisation on their own, they learn to reinforce themselves and not depend on you to validate their efforts. 

#5. Don’t give rewards. 

Do we want our children to behave in a way that’s desirable just because they might get something or get into trouble if caught? – because that’s what a reward system encourages. Or do we want our children to do the right thing because they know it’s right and because they want to do right? Rewards, just like praise, condition children to seek approval. Moreover, the child who is used to being praised begins to feel inadequate if the praise doesn’t come. When children are bribed with rewards for “good” behaviour, they soon learn how to act the part that is expected of them. Does that mean that giving rewards is always bad? Not if they are not promised in advance, nor guaranteed every time the child does something we like/expect/are impressed with. Positive feedback is best for our relationship with our children when it is offered spontaneously and when it is not a method to get what we want from our children.

#6. Don’t compare your child to anyone.

Because they want to motivate their children, parents give them examples of others who are more successful, without realising how toxic that is. Every time we compare two people, we are saying that one is better than the other in some aspect. The result is the children lose faith in themselves and their abilities. A child who is often compared to others will grow up into an insecure adult who will always look for approval and guidance, and who will make bad choices. If they are compared to siblings, children will start competing with each other and fighting for attention. Comparison is the root of rivalry, conflict and much unhappiness. Every human being is unique, regardless the age. Physically, cognitively, emotionally, we are all different, so comparing ourselves to anyone makes no sense. The only comparison that is effective is the comparison to one’s self. This way we can look at how we used to be and compare it to how far we have come, how much we evolved, and learn from our experience. 

#7. Don’t encourage competition.

By pitting individuals  against each other you can create motivation. Many people desire to be the best, or at least, to be better than others. But while competition encourages selfish values, collaboration encourages selfless behaviours and leads to a faster learning curve. It has been said that there is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. According to Jane McGonigal in her book Reality is Broken, collaboration is based on cooperating (acting purposefully toward a common goal), coordinating (synchronising efforts and sharing resources), and co-creating (producing a new outcome together). She argues that collaboration is far more powerful than competition. Imagine the pressure and tension in a competition versus the relaxed environment, where people can collaborate with mutual sympathy and trust in each other’s roles and abilities. Which one would you prefer? 

While there isn’t a set recipe for raising successful children, it’s up to us parents to do our best and be there for our children, accept them and love them for who they are, connect with them and encourage them to dream big and to do what makes them happy. Their definition of happiness might be different than ours, but it’s our job to accept that, too. Also, it’s important to remember to be a role model. “Do as I say not as I do”, doesn’t work. Be the person you want your child to be.

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