This may seem counterintuitive, but praising children’s talents and abilities seems to rattle their confidence. Tackling more difficult puzzles carries the risk of losing one’s status as “smart” and deprives kids of the thrill of choosing to work simply for its own sake, regardless of outcomes. Dr. Dweck’s work aligns nicely with that of Dr. Baumrind, who also found that reasonably supporting a child’s autonomy and limiting interference results in better academic and emotional outcomes.
Their research confirms what I’ve seen in more than 25 years of clinical work, treating children in Marin County, an affluent suburb of San Francisco. The happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing; and their parents do not do things for them that satisfy their own needs rather than the needs of the child.
The central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident and generally in accord with reality. If you treat your walking toddler as if she can’t walk, you diminish her confidence and distort reality. Ditto nightly “reviews” of homework, repetitive phone calls to “just check if you’re O.K.” and “editing” (read: writing) your child’s college application essay.
Once your child is capable of doing something, congratulate yourself on a job well done and move on. Continued, unnecessary intervention makes your child feel bad about himself (if he’s young) or angry at you (if he’s a teenager).
But isn’t it a parent’s job to help with those things that are just beyond your child’s reach? Why is it overparenting to do for your child what he or she is almost capable of?
Think back to when your toddler learned to walk. She would take a weaving step or two, collapse and immediately look to you for your reaction. You were in thrall to those early attempts and would do everything possible to encourage her to get up again. You certainly didn’t chastise her for failing or utter dire predictions about flipping burgers for the rest of her life if she fell again. You were present, alert and available to guide if necessary. But you didn’t pick her up every time.
You knew she had to get it wrong many times before she could get it right.
HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting. It’s easier when they’re young — tolerating a stumbling toddler is far different from allowing a preteenager to meet her friends at the mall. The potential mistakes carry greater risks, and part of being a parent is minimizing risk for our children.
What kinds of risks should we tolerate? If there’s a predator loose in the neighborhood, your daughter doesn’t get to go to the mall. But under normal circumstances an 11-year-old girl is quite capable of taking care of herself for a few hours in the company of her friends. She may forget a package, overpay for an item or forget that she was supposed to call home at noon. Mastery of the world is an expanding geography for our kids, for toddlers, it’s the backyard; for preteens, the neighborhood, for teens the wider world. But it is in the small daily risks — the taller slide, the bike ride around the block, the invitation extended to a new classmate — that growth takes place. In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.
So if children are able to live with mistakes and even failing, why does it drive us crazy? So many parents have said to me, “I can’t stand to see my child unhappy.” If you can’t stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business. The small challenges that start in infancy (the first whimper that doesn’t bring you running) present the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.
While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.
There is an important distinction between good and bad parental involvement. For example, a young child doesn’t want to sit and do his math homework. Good parents insist on compliance, not because they need their child to be a perfect student but because the child needs to learn the fundamentals of math and develop a good work ethic. Compare this with the parent who spends weeks “helping” his or her child fill out college applications with the clear expectation that if they both work hard enough, a “gotta get into” school is a certainty. (While most of my parent patients have graduated from college, it is always a telltale sign of overparenting when they talk about how “we’re applying to Columbia.”)
In both situations parents are using control, in the first case behavioral (sit down, do your math) and in the second psychological (“we’re applying.”) It is psychological control that carries with it a textbook’s worth of damage to a child’s developing identity. If pushing, direction, motivation and reward always come from the outside, the child never has the opportunity to craft an inside. Having tutors prep your anxious 3-year-old for a preschool interview because all your friends’ children are going to this particular school or pushing your exhausted child to take one more advanced-placement course because it will ensure her spot as class valedictorian is not involved parenting but toxic overparenting aimed at meeting the parents’ need for status or affirmation and not the child’s needs.
So how do parents find the courage to discard the malpractice of overparenting? It’s hard to swim upstream, to resist peer pressure. But we must remember that children thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and noninterfering.
A loving parent is warm, willing to set limits and unwilling to breach a child’s psychological boundaries by invoking shame or guilt. Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety. Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation. Will you stay up worrying? Probably, but the child’s job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety so it doesn’t get in the way of his reasonable moves toward autonomy.
Parents also have to be clear about their own values. Children watch us closely. If you want your children to be able to stand up for their values, you have to do the same. If you believe that a summer spent reading, taking creek walks and playing is better than a specialized camp, then stick to your guns. Parents also have to make sure their own lives are fulfilling. There is no parent more vulnerable to the excesses of overparenting than an unhappy parent. One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.Continue reading the main story
No matter what the prompt asks for, almost any effective college essay should showcase one or several of what I call your “defining qualities.”
If the prompt asks you to write a personal statement (for The Common App), tell about yourself or wants to know why you are a fit for their university, you will need a clear idea of the core qualities or characteristics that make you who you are—that “define” you.
Once you know those, you can write an essay that helps the reader understand how you are that way, and why it matters.
Of course, along the way, you will also mention your related interests, passions, idiosyncrasies, talents, experiences, accomplishments and even your endearing flaws.
(If you are confused at this point, you might want to check out my Quickie Jumpstart Guide to better understand the role these “defining qualities” play in a college admissions essay or personal statement.)
Here’s what I ask my tutoring students to help them start corralling their defining qualities—especially when many of them have no idea what I’m talking about at first:
“If your mom or dad were talking to a friend or relative who didn’t know you well and asked what you were all about now that you were all grown up, how would they describe you to that person?
What are some of the words or phrases they might use to sum you up?”
If you think about it, you can almost hear them, I bet: “Well, Sarah, she’s still very driven, and hard-working, and focused.”
Or “Oh Sam, he’s still a free spirit, and creative and imaginative, and he’s also very social and outgoing.”
or “Mike, he’s our problem solver, very logical, but he’s also so humble and generous.”
I’m not saying that your parents are always right about you, but in general, they have a pretty decent idea of what makes you tick.
Of course, include qualities that you think you have, or ask some of your friends. You don’t need a long list; anywhere between three to five solid qualities are plenty.
Once you find a quality or characteristic, you just need to think of a real-life story (called an anecdote) from your past that illustrates that descriptor—and you are well on your way to writing an effective essay!
Another trick when digging for your personal quality or characteristic is to try to focus them as much as possible.
For example, if you say you are “social,” try to think of qualities that are even more specific to exactly how you are social.
Are you open, talkative, friendly, funny, easy to talk to, accepting, empathetic, flirty, etc.
If you say you are smart, you need to be more specific.
Narrow it down; specifically how are you smart?: insightful, observant, logical, analytical, fast learner, critical thinker, problem solver, etc.
One more tip: If you’re among the students who already have a subject path in mind for your college, such as engineering or medicine or law, it doesn’t hurt to identify what qualities you have that would make you effective in that field.
But if you are like most students, and still have no clue, don’t worry about lining up your qualities with any goal other than finding those that are true to who you are.
When flaws are good: Although most of your defining qualities or characteristics will be viewed as attributes or strengths, it doesn’t hurt if you have one in there that could be viewed as a flaw or weakness.
Don’t overlook those. They can be very powerful when writing college admissions essays or personal statements.
Make sure those more negative qualities have an up side for you.
For example, if you have a stubborn streak, that could make you a persistent person (future lawyer? haha).
Also, sometimes, if we have a weakness, you have developed another quality to help compensate for it.
Flaws are fine as long as you can turn them around and show how they make you even more effective at being who you are.
If you are like some of my students who freeze up or go blank when I put them on the spot and ask them to jot down their “defining qualities,” I know it always helps to have a list to get you started.
These are all one-word descriptors, but you can also include short phrases:
Able, Accepting, Accurate, Achieving, Adaptable, Adorable, Adventurous, Affectionate, Alert, Alive, Altruistic, Amazing, Ambitious, Analytical, Appreciative, Appealing, Artistic, Assertive, Astonishing, Attentive, Attractive, Authentic, Aware, Awesome, Balanced, Beautiful, Blissful, Blooming, Bold, Bountiful, Brave, Breath-Taking, Bright, Calm, Capable, Careful, Carefree, Caring, Cautious, Centered, Certain, Charitable, Charming, Cheeky, Cheerful, Chirpy, Civic-Minded, Clean, Colorful, Competitive, Clear-Thinking, Communicative, Compassionate, Compatible, Competitive, Complete, Confident, Conscientious, Considerate, Conservative, Consistent, Content, Co-operative, Courageous, Conscientious, Courteous, Creative, Cuddly, Curious, Cultural, Cute, Decisive, Deliberate, Delicate, Delicious, Delightful, Dependable, Desirable, Determined, Devoted, Disciplined, Discrete, Discriminating, Dynamic, Easy-Going, Eager, Efficient, Elegant, Empathetic, Enduring, Energetic, Enlightened, Enthusiastic, Entrepreneurial, Excellent, Exciting, Experienced, Fair-Minded, Faithful, Farsighted, Fast-learner, Feeling, Fierce, Flexible, Flourishing, Focused, Forgiving, Fortuitous, Free, Fresh, Friendly, Frugal, Funny, Generous, Gentle, Good, Glorious, Graceful, Gratuitous, Great, Groovy, Handsome, Happy, Harmonious, Healthy, Heavenly, Helpful, Holistic, Hopeful, Humble, Humorous, Honest, Humble, Idealistic, Imaginative, Having Integrity, Independent, Individualistic, Industrious, Innovative, Insightful, Inspirational, Interesting, Intelligent, Intense, Intuitive, Inventive, Invigorating, Joyful, Juicy, Just, Kind, Leading or Leader, Learned, Loving, Loyal, Lucky, Luscious, Luxurious, Macho, Magical, Manly, Magnificent, Masculine, Mature, Moral, Motivating, Natural, Neat, Needed, Noticeable, Nurturing, Obedient, Objective, Open, Optimistic, Original, Organized, Outgoing, Outstanding, Passionate, Patient, Peaceful, Perceptive, Persevering, Persistent, Persuasive, Playful, Poetic, Polite, Popular, Powerful, Practical, Precious, Precise, Profound, Progressive, Proud, Professional, Punctual, Pure, Purposeful, Questioning, Quick-witted, Ravishing, Realistic, Refreshing, Reliable, Resilient, Resourceful, Respectful, Responsible, Rich, Romantic, Rosy, Seductive, Selfless, Self-Aware, Self-Confident, Self-Disciplined, Sensitive, Serene, Sexy, Sharp, Simple, Sincere, Sizzling, Skilled, Smart, Smooth, Soft, Special, Spectacular, Spiritual, Splendid, Spontaneous, Stable, Steadfast, Strategic, Stunning, Strong, Strongwilled, Stylish, Successful, Supportive, Supreme, Sympathetic, Tactful, Talented, Tasty, Tenacious, Tender, Terrific, Thinking, Thorough, Thoughtful, Thrifty, Thriving, Tolerant, Tough, Trusting, Trustworthy, Unassuming, Understanding, Unwavering, Uplifting, Useful, Valuable, Verbal, Vibrant, Vital, Warm, Wholesome, Willing, Wise, Worthy, Youthful, Yummy.
Once you have your personal collection of defining qualities, you are armed to write a college essay that reveals your true character.
In most essays, you will typically focus on one main quality at at time, otherwise they will end up too general and not as powerful.
If you are starting an essay, read the prompt closely and see if it is trying to get you to share your core qualities.
Sometimes a prompt will ask you to write about someone other than yourself–a role model, leader or mentor in your life.
In these essays, the trick is to identify the qualities they demonstrated and what you learned from them.
Here’s my Jumpstart Guide to help you start most college application essays or personal statements, such as those that ask you to describe an experience, talent, accomplishment, achievement, dilemma, risk, etc. (It’s perfect for any of the Common App prompts as well as the UC prompts.)
Also, any prompt that asks you to show how something has influenced you–whether it’s a person, an issue or even a fictional character–you can’t go wrong by linking that influence to your defining qualities.
Once you have a defining quality you want to write about, all you need are some examples of how you developed, refined or applied that quality, and then why it was important to yourself, to someone else and/or to the world, and BOOM, you have a great college essay!
Want to know the best way to relate an example of your defining qualities in your essays?
Read about how to write an anecdote to show the reader about your defining/core quality. Usually one of the best ways to share your defining quality is to tell a story about it.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
In How to Tell a Story, you will learn how to show your defining quality instead of just tell about it.