Read an Excerpt
The Successful Child
By Martha Sears William Sears and Elizabeth Pantley
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2002 William Sears and Martha Sears
All right reserved.
THE FIRST OF OUR EIGHT CHILDREN was born thirty-four years ago, about the time I began pediatric training. As new parents, we wanted to do everything we could to help our child become a success in life, but we weren't sure what was most important. At the same time, as a new pediatrician, I found that parents often asked me what they could do to help their children turn out well.
To answer both these personal and professional questions, I began observing parents and children closely and recording my observations. I talked to parents about their relationship with their child, and I invited them to tell me what kinds of parenting challenges they faced and what kinds of parenting practices worked well for them. Meanwhile, at home, Martha and I had more children, learning more about parenting with each one. Many kids and many pediatric patients later, we believe we have found reliable answers to questions about how parents can help their children turn out well. We share what we've learned in this book.
How do we become who we are? This is the question I wondered about as I began my career as a parent and pediatrician. It is not an easy one to answer. Many factors influence how children turn out - heredity, nurturing, nutrition, health, schools, peers, and, of course, a bit of luck. Parents can influence some but not all of these factors. Yet it seemed to me thirty-four years ago that there must be some common threads that run through the childhoods of children who are nice to be around. What factors in these children's environment contributed to their positive outcome? How do early experiences leave their impression on a child's inner being - for better or worse - and forever influence how the child thinks and acts?
To find answers to these questions, I decided to gather information on children who turned out well. I decided to find out what their parents did. Gather enough information, I thought, and some common themes were bound to emerge. So, for more than thirty years, I've used my office as a laboratory to study the development of babies and children, particularly the development of their personalities and relationships. After parenting our eight children, ages eight to thirty-four as of this writing, and participating in approximately 150,000 observation sessions (i.e., pediatric patient visits to my office), I feel I have a handle on what parents can do to raise a successful child.
In preparation for this book, Martha, Elizabeth, and I interviewed hundreds of parents, teachers, psychologists, and parent educators - anyone who works with children - to determine what correlations they notice between how kids turned out and what their parents did. We also turned to scientific studies on the relationship between how children are nurtured and the personal qualities they develop. Reading the research has helped us analyze our observations better and has confirmed our intuition about the importance of the connection between parent and child. Information from these research studies is sprinkled throughout this book in boxes labeled "Science Says." We even consulted the kids themselves, asking them to record what they believed about how their parents influenced their lives. Throughout the book we list these observations as "Kids Say."
Our observations tell us that parents should not take all the credit or all the blame for the person their child becomes. Certainly, the parents we talked to were not perfect parents who turned out perfect children, nor is this book written by perfect parents of perfect children. All of us must do the best we can with the information and resources we have. I wish we had had the knowledge and experience we have now when we were raising our first child, a time when our main concern was often just getting through the day. It wasn't until our sixth child that Martha and I felt truly confident about our parenting. However, we have learned not to beat ourselves up about the things we wish we had done differently, since we did the best we could and we can't change the past. Nevertheless, we'd like to help you scale the learning curve a little more quickly than we did. It is possible to be excellent parents even with your first child.
Our first two sons are now fathers themselves, and the way they saw us parent their younger siblings, along with the relationships we've established with them over the years, has been a positive influence on the way they and their wives parent our grandchildren. I am also beginning to see "grandchildren" in my pediatric practice - children of mothers and fathers whom I cared for as infants. I always ask them what their parents did that they will and will not carry over into how they parent their own children.
THE REAL MEANING OF SUCCESS
Every parent wants to raise a successful child. Yet many of us mean different things by "success." When our two elder sons, Dr. Jim and Dr. Bob, joined the Sears Family Pediatric Practice, I gave them a little doctorly and fatherly advice: "Your success in life, Jim and Bob, will not be measured by the money you make or the degrees you earn, but rather by the number of persons whose lives are better because of what you did."
The dictionary defines success as "attaining wealth, fame, or prosperity." Our definition goes beyond this conventional idea of success. Here's our wish list for successful children:
Does success mean rich and famous?
Rich and famous people make headlines, so it's easy for children to conclude that turning out well means being well-off. There are many success stories of people who gain wealth by using their talents and working hard, then live happily while giving to others to make this world a better place to live in. It is also true that among the rich and famous are some of the unhappiest people in the world. Tabloids are full of the "unsuccess" stories of celebrities: failed relationships, drug and alcohol addiction, suicide. Many financially rich persons are emotionally poor. As a psychologist friend once told us, "If you want to know how much wealth you have, count your friends."
We have worked hard to keep our children from feeling that their value depends on how they perform. A child who makes A's is not "better" than a child who makes C's, provided they both are working to their full potential. While the A student is more likely to be voted "Most Likely to Succeed" at her high-school graduation, the C student might be more emotionally healthy. He may have talents in areas other than academics - sports, the arts, or the ability to get along with people. What we're trying to say is that you can't measure success in child rearing by children's accomplishments. In this case, "successful" refers to your personal qualities, not what you accomplish.
So, what does it mean to turn out well? We believe it's the depth of relationships we sustain, not the accomplishments we tick off, that makes our lives successful and happy: the relationships children have with themselves, as well as the other lives they touch. The goal of this book is to help you help your child become relationship rich.
Adding value to your child.
Children need to perceive themselves as valuable, based on what is within them; they also need external experiences that help them feel valuable. Our aim is to help parents raise children who not only regard themselves as valuable people but also, with their kindness, compassion, and ability to connect, grow up to add value to the lives of others.
One day an insensitive person was badgering Martha about having eight kids and contributing to the "world's overpopulation." Martha returned with: "The world needs my kids."
Lessons from "good" kids.
If you've spent any time at all reading books about raising children, you know that saying "bad boy" or "bad girl" is a no-no. Psychologists instruct parents to focus on good or bad behavior, not extend those value judgments to their child's personal self. But the fact is, there are good kids and kids who are not so good. Sometimes the "good" kids from "good" homes surprise us by making headlines for doing awful things. When we hear horrible stories of children and teenagers wielding guns, knives, and bombs against their teachers, classmates, and families, we search for explanations. Is it the video games these kids played? The movies they watched, the web sites they visited? Is it the all-black clothing they adopt, or some kind of exaggerated adolescent alienation? Psychiatrists, politicians, and religious leaders bemoan the state of our youth and the violence in our world. And everyone looks for ways to blame the kids' parents. But unless there's obvious abuse in the home, often no one ever seems to know how or why some children go wrong.
Good kids don't make bad headlines. In fact, good kids seldom make headlines at all. We are fortunate to work in professions that show us the inherent goodness of children every day. They are empathetic, kind, and friendly. They know who they are as people. They respect themselves and others, are responsible, and are fun to be around. They're not perfect. Some of their fine qualities are still in development, and sometimes anger or fear gets the best of them. Some may grow up to be rich and powerful, but, more important, they will be happy and content, have stable relationships, and make good parents for the next generation.
The parents of our world's "good kids" have much to share with us. These are parents who are willing to take responsibility for their children, parents who make an effort to learn about why children behave the way they do. They encourage the good behavior while trying to change the bad. They learn from their own experience and that of other parents. As a result, parents of kids who turn out well have wonderful insights to share with less experienced parents. Throughout this book, we share with you what they have told us.
TURNING OUT WELL -BUT WITH A STRUGGLE
Martha and I are particularly sensitive to kids who have a tough start yet fight to become adults who turn out well. Humans are resilient, and what we become is not determined forever by what happens in childhood. We both had less than ideal childhoods - an understatement. Martha's dad drowned when she was four, and her mother never recovered psychologically, leaving her daughter to be reared by not especially nurturing grandparents. My father took off when I was a few weeks old, forcing my mother to work long hours to support us. Even though I was raised in a home with nurturing grandparents, they also worked long hours, making me a "latchkey kid" before there even was such a term. Yet, fifty years later, what I remember most about my childhood is how my mother did the best she could under less than ideal circumstances. She surrounded me with healthy role models. She carefully screened teachers, scoutmasters, caregivers, and other persons of significance in my life. She made sure I was connected to healthy attachment figures. Despite our poverty and the stigma of being a fatherless child (there was only one other child in my grade-school and high-school classes who came from a "divorced" family), I grew up in a loving home. Having to work for my luxuries taught me a work ethic and a sense of responsibility.
Although many kids do bounce back from less than ideal childhoods and turn out well, they carry emotional baggage into adulthood and spend many years trying to unload it. How much easier it would be for kids to grow up well and then be free to spend their adult years improving rather than repairing their emotional lives.
Yet problems can be turned into opportunities. As a child of divorced parents, I was determined to stay married. Working summers on assembly lines in steel mills motivated me to finish college. Still, this tough childhood left me unconnected in some important ways - which took me fifty years to recognize and correct. But I believe that the good things my mother and grandparents did for me in childhood helped me overcome the challenges I faced as an adult.
CREATING THE CAPACITY FOR RESILIENCE
How is it that some kids turn out well despite facing tough obstacles in childhood? Why are some kids more resilient than others? We suspect that early attachment parenting (which you will learn about in the next chapter) instills in a child a blueprint for future relationships. Children who learn early on what it is to be connected to others and to be able to trust them try to maintain or regain this connectedness as they grow into adulthood. They follow that early blueprint and bring the trust they learned in their first relationship into later relationships. That blueprint also shows them how to trust themselves, and this self-confidence sees a child through significant adversity. Children carry the connectedness they learned as infants through the rest of their lives. It becomes part of their overall well-being and makes them resilient.
Children who succeed despite multiple challenges usually have at least one important person in their lives to whom they feel connected. Ideally, this person is a parent, but it may be a teacher, a coach, a scoutmaster, or another person of significance. Connecting with others is very important. The kids that highschool counselors worry about most are those who don't seem to belong anywhere. They also worry about those who, in their hunger to belong, connect with the wrong people. Kids with a blueprint for strong attachment in infancy and early childhood not only know how to connect with others but are also better able to sort out good and bad influences.
We have noticed two other characteristics of resilient kids. One is that trusted caregivers frame the child in a positive light: "You can do it," "You're smart and persistent," "You can get into that college." Children who hear statements such as "You're not good enough to make that team" or "You're too clumsy to be a quarterback" often live up to these negative expectations. Another characteristic of resilient kids is that some special person in the child's life discovered his "special something" - a talent, a unique ability - and helped him put that special something to work. Someone spots athletic ability in a marginal student and helps him become a star basketball player. A child may fail mathematics, yet excel in art, and someone helps him put that artistic ability to work in computer graphics - which also helps his math skills.
In an ideal world, every child would get everything needed for success in adulthood. In the real world, good parents try to do the best they can at each new stage that comes along.
Excerpted from The Successful Child by Martha Sears William Sears and Elizabeth Pantley Copyright © 2002 by William Sears and Martha Sears. Excerpted by permission.
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