My work is about helping parents raise ready kids, not happy or successful ones. I use the word ready intentionally, because I think parents’ number one opportunity and responsibility is to help children develop capacities that will make it possible for them to do many different things for the benefit of themselves and the communities they belong to. Later, children themselves can decide how to use the capabilities their parents helped them acquire.
Will your children be happy when they are 15 or 35? Who knows. That depends on many factors outside of your control.
Will your children be successful when they are 25 or 45? Who knows. First of all, I don’t think it’s appropriate for parents to try to dictate what “success” means to their children. Further, however you or your children define success, your children may or may not reach that bar. That’s up to them and their luck, not you.
What parents can do, however, is help their children acquire the knowledge, skills, character, and sense of purpose that will enable them, in the words of the 1980s Army commercial, to be all that they can be.
The more your children know about history, the more able they’ll be to help avoid the mistakes of the past. The more they know about science, the better they can help craft technology that benefits society. The more they understand about how how people learn, the more they’ll be able to learn themselves.
The more they know about the history of their own family, the more they can see their own life as a continuation and furtherance of a long-term quest on the part of multiple generations. The more likely they are to feel that they should honor the sacrifices of those who came before and build on their achievements.
The more your children know, the more power they have.
We humans realize our greatest potential through the actions we take. Actions take skill.
Children who have the skills to discern other people’s emotions and manage their own can foster rich personal relationships and build effective teams. Children with storytelling skills can move others to join a worthy cause. Children who can play a musical instrument can bring joy to others and themselves.
Children with the skills to think logically and creatively can solve tough problems for themselves and society. Children who find pleasure in growing their skills will be able to reinvent themselves many times over, for their own benefit and the benefit of others.
The more skilled your children are, the more they can do for themselves and the world.
I think of character as mindsets and commitments that are deeply rooted in our being. These mindsets and commitments may make us more comfortable or happy, or they may not. Ultimately, though, that doesn’t matter, because character is about something deeper.
A persistent child will keep working at a worthy and important challenge, even when they’re tempted to give up. A kind and courageous child will continue to treat others well even when their friends are making fun of them. A curious child will keep looking for a deeper answer to a question even after others have been satisfied with a superficial one.
When mindsets and commitments can be said to be part of our character, they have become part of our identity. We don’t have to think about whether we will help an elderly person cross the street; it’s just who we are. We don’t have to think about whether we’ll rescue a wounded comrade in a war zone; it’s just who we are. We don’t have to think about whether we’ll speak up about injustice we see in our workplaces or our community; it’s just who we are.
The more your child begins to deeply internalize worthy mindsets and commitments, the more their knowledge and skills will light up the world.
Purpose, according to Stanford Professor William Damon, is “a stable intention to accomplish something meaningful to oneself and of consequence to the world beyond.”1 Purpose is something deeper than interest or passion.
Many young people don’t discover deeper purpose until they’re in their twenties or thirties, and some never get there. If your child is lucky, eventually they will end up deeply committed to one or several long-term purposes: nurturing and supporting a family; building a business; pursuing an artistic vision; or improving others’ lives through service, invention, or scientific discovery.
A child with purpose has long-term perspective. They are willing to sacrifice in the short term to achieve something important in the long term. For example, entrepreneurs often feel a deep sense of calling to what they are doing. “Choose a mission that really matters,” the famed venture capitalist John Doerr recently told Forbes. “Be very clear that what you are doing is what you cannot not do.”2
Parents can’t choose a purpose for their children, but they can plant seeds. The purpose your children develop over time will enable them to use the full range of their talents and character to lead a full life and make a positive mark on the world.
Knowledge, skills, character, and purpose: These are the ingredients that you need to raise ready kids.
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- Talk by Stanford Professor William Damon at Nueva Innovative Learning Conference, October 20, 2017. For those interested in learning more, Damon has written a book called The Path to Purpose.
- See John Doerr’s interview with Forbes, captured as part of its Forbes@100 project, at https://www.forbes.com/video/5558154578001/.