What the College-Admission Scandal Should Teach Parents About Success

Student Success

What the College-Admission Scandal Should Teach Parents About Success

By Jim Lobdell     Mar 27, 2019

What the College-Admission Scandal Should Teach Parents About Success

In the end, the recent college admissions scandal can teach parents one of two lessons: create your own broad definition of success and parent your kids out of hope and conviction, or default to our culture’s narrow definition of success and act out of fear and anxiety.

The deleterious effects on students who chase the narrow markers of “success”—grades, test scores, resume-building accomplishments and admissions to prestigious colleges—are well-documented. The academic and extracurricular load required to compete often means compromising integrity, sleep, mental health and overall well-being, all the while research clearly dispels myths about the importance of attending elite colleges.

The irony is that this “chase” fosters none of the most important attributes needed for long-term success in our increasingly dynamic world—creativity, resilience, problem-solving, collaboration, flexible-thinking, empathy, adaptability, to name a few. Yet parents increasingly focus more on the things that matter less (achievement metrics), and less on the things that matter more (character traits).

What all this means for under-resourced students, whose families can’t play the game on this wildly uneven field, is the bigger, more damning story told here and here.

Scandals aside, this dynamic was widely evident in 2007 when I co-founded Challenge Success, a research-based, nonprofit out of the Stanford School of Education that champions a broad definition of success and partners with families and schools to promote student well-being and engagement with learning. In subsequent years, thousands of well-intentioned parents have come to Challenge Success events fighting an internal battle, knowing in their gut that the treadmill to superficial success is not healthy or sustainable, but fearful that if they step off it, their children would fall behind.

As an antidote, Challenge Success developed parent education resources centered on supporting parents in defining success on their family’s terms, in alignment with their values, and in accordance with who their kids are. Here’s a two-step process, akin to developing an organization’s mission and values statement, for doing that.

Step 1: Define what success means for your family. Ask yourself: When your children leave the nest, what attributes do you hope they’ll have as they enter adulthood? Use words, phrases, bullet points, or sentences to describe these attributes. Limit yourself to about 30 words.

Here’s an example list of success attributes:

  • Competent, self-reliant, sound decision-maker
  • Core values rooted in kindness and hard work
  • A willing learner excited about life and its possibilities
  • Interpersonally skilled
  • Emotionally intelligent
  • Socially aware, responsible, and active

Step 2: Determine the “guiding principles” for your family. Identify 3-5 guiding principles that represent your bedrock values as parents. Consider guiding principles as the pillars that inform parenting decisions and provides a framework for how you can support your child’s path to success.

Here are five examples:

We believe in the primacy of family time. For us, this means:

  • Having regular family meals together
  • Keeping weekends under-scheduled
  • Building connections with extended family
  • Consciously creating memories

We believe in hard work and effort. For us, this means:

  • Give your best effort
  • Focus on working hard and results take care of themselves
  • Taking risks
  • Embracing mistakes and developing resilience

We believe in being kind to yourself, others, and the earth. For us, this means:

  • Keeping wellness and balance in the forefront of daily life
  • Developing a community of family and friends
  • Showing generosity and gratitude in all you do
  • Participating in good works

We believe in developing and supporting interests. For us, this means:

  • Reflecting on personal values and aligning life in accordance with them
  • Doing activities that bring a glimmer to your eyes
  • Choosing life work that is meaningful to you
  • Being a life-long learner

We believe life is a journey, not a race. For us, this means:

  • Expressing gratitude regularly
  • Enjoying the moment and seeing beauty in little things
  • Allowing “down time” for reflection
  • Recognizing and accepting our flaws

Getting off the treadmill and bucking convention isn’t easy. Doing it, in fact, is an act of courage and a leap of faith. But when you take the long view, trust your gut and define success on your family’s terms, you reposition your stance as a parent—with an eye to the children before you, to their needs and interests, and to your values and hopes for what they can bring to the world as an adult.

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