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What Makes Teens ‘Most Likely to Succeed?’

As a sociologist who’s done much research on elite performance and productivity, I’ve given a lot of thought to the skills that lead to success in the modern economy.

What I’ve found applies not only to adults, but to kids, including teens graduating from high school this spring. Parents, too, take note: As many graduates look ahead to the future, here are seven learned qualities or characteristics that make teens, as the yearbook might put it, “most likely to succeed”:

They know who they are and what they want. A key component of grit is intrinsic interest. This is distinct from knowing what we – their parents and teachers and the adult culture – want for them, who we think they are or who we think they should be. For teens to succeed, they must do the work that is most important to them. Understanding the positive impact they can have on the world and other people will provide them with a tremendous source of energy and motivation.

They’re able to command their own attention. Teens can’t persist in pursuing their long-term goals if they can’t remember what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. In a world where corporations pay per view to rule teens’ concentration and interest, and where social media and gaming empires depend on their ability to command kids’ attention, successful teens are somehow still able to stay focused on their objectives. They study when they need to study, sleep when they need to sleep, exercise and are fully present for their friends and family. Against all odds, they cope effectively with the digital temptations that surround them. They use computers and smartphones strategically – rather than compulsively – as tools that make them more efficient, effective, connected and creative, instead of just being distracted and drained by electronics.

One thing I don’t think teens need to succeed is more ambition. Click To Tweet

They turn away from instant and shallow pursuits to think deeply. Business writer Eric Barker calls this “the superpower of the 21st century.” Georgetown University professor Cal Newport writes in his treatise on focus, “Deep Work,” that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

They effortlessly generate creative insights. The key word here is “effortlessly;” we don’t find innovative solutions to real world, unpredictable problems through relentless hard work. The most successful teens will be those who still value activities that lead to creativity. In a world which disparages unstructured play, free time and noncompetitive artistic expression – in lieu of highly structured sports, elite performing arts and AP classes – these teens have the courage to nap, play and stare into space while everyone else skips breakfast in order to cram for the next exam.

They’re authentic and emotionally courageous. They are willing to feel what they feel, and that gives them access to the wisdom of their hearts. Because they are willing to experience tough emotions, such as disappointment, embarrassment and frustration, these teens are gritty. Being willing to risk feeling difficult emotions enables them to persist toward their long-term goals. They are able to take risks, have difficult conversations and stay true to what they know is right.

They’re happy. It’s easy in adolescence to succumb to the coolness of cynicism. Successful teens, however, understand that cynicism is a marker of fear, not intelligence. Kids who consciously cultivate gratitude, love, happiness, peace, awe, inspiration, optimism and faith broaden their perception in the moment and build resources over time. Their ability to foster positive emotions allows them to access their most high-functioning, creative and intelligent selves. Because of this, they are more engaged at school and with their friends, families and communities than their less positive peers.

They are connected. These teens innately understand the transcendent importance of their peer relationships. They smile at people they don’t yet know and invest deeply in and rely on relationships with friends and family. Because of these bonds, they will be statistically less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem and problems with eating and sleeping than those who keep others at a distance.

This isn’t all kids need to succeed, of course. To develop their talents, for example, they also need growth mindsets, good coaches and the ability and desire to hone their skills by engaging in deliberate practice, or consistently practicing to reach specific objectives.

But one thing I don’t think they need is more ambition.

Usually we think of the most ambitious kids as the ones who are also most likely to succeed. But more often than not, such striving leads to the kind of stress and anxiety that seems to be hamstringing our kids today. Too much ambition causes kids to focus on themselves even more than they’re already prone to, and as Wharton psychologist Adam Grant’s research has shown, this won’t lead to success at work.

Nor will extreme ambition lead to happiness in life. My daughter Fiona has a ceramic sign on her wall that says, “The measure of my success is my happiness.” It’s when success is defined that way that I think she – and all of our kids – are most likely to succeed.


How to Help Your Teen Deal With Stress

“Are your kids totally happy and squared away?” a reporter recently asked me earnestly during an interview. Gah. I really hate that question.

My kids are awesome. Easy to raise. Fun to be around. But they aren’t perfect, and, ironically, I worry that they will be as anxious as I was for the first 40 years of my life.

I come from a long line of anxious women, on both sides of my family. My grandmother, whom I’m supposedly the spitting image of, was reportedly prone to “nervous breakdowns,” which seems like a genetic heritage worth worrying about. And now, two of my kids would probably tell you that they’re pretty anxious (especially the one who looks just like me).

Fortunately, even at their most anxious, my children seem positively laid back compared to how I was as a teenager. And, over the last decade, I’ve really come a long way toward dialing down the stress in my own life.

But, generally speaking, Americans’ stress levels only seem to be increasing. The American Psychological Association recently released its 2017 Stress in America survey, and for the first time in the decade since the annual survey began, the average stress level of Americans has risen significantly. More Americans say they’re experiencing physical and emotional symptoms related to stress than ever before.

What’s more, another annual survey – this one from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors – suggests that our kids are not growing up to be more chill than we were. Colleges and universities continue to add mental health services staff to meet the needs of students, and on campuses nationwide increasing focus is being placed on helping students manage stress. It’s no surprise that anxiety continues to be the most predominant concern among college students, with 51 percent of the students who seek counseling doing so for anxiety.

This calls for action, folks. So here are three things we can do to raise kids who aren’t so anxious:

1. Stop doing things that stress you out. This goes even for those stressful tasks you take on because you think you’re doing what’s best for your kids. Psychology researchers Robert Epstein and Shannon Fox compared the effectiveness of 10 important parenting practices, including how well parents support their children’s education and to what extent they provide educational opportunities for them. Not surprisingly, they found the most important thing for a kid’s health and happiness is to be loving and affectionate – to support and accept the child, be physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.

But the next most important “parenting competency” – as reported by Epstein in the magazine Scientific American Mind – in terms of its influence on kids’ health, happiness, school success, and the quality of the parent’s relationship with their children, did surprise me. It’s how well parents manage their own stress. Parents who take steps to reduce stress for themselves, practice relaxation techniques and promote a positive interpretation of events have happier, healthier and more successful kids.

If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it. Skip the stressful parenting stuff you’re doing just because you think you should. Really. For example, I skip morning PTA meetings because they make me feel too pressed for time. I’ve backed down on my rigid health food rules at dinner so that I can enjoy a little conflict-free time with my kids. And I let myself go to bed before my older teens usually do, even though part of me feels like I should stay up and make sure that they are in bed on time. Why? Because these things are not as key for my children’s health, happiness or school success as for my own ability to cope.

If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it. Click To Tweet

2. Curb the family’s technology use. The latest Stress in America report makes the relationship between technology and stress clear. A stunning 86 percent of Americans constantly or often check their emails, texts and social media accounts, and these “constant checkers” are far more stressed than those who do not engage with technology as frequently. Millennials and younger Americans report the highest stress levels related to technology.

Reduce kids’ stress by creating structural solutions that curb constant device checking for your entire family. After all, technology is designed to be addictive. Here are a few suggestions of places where you should put technology aside:

  • In the car: Put phones in the trunk. Seriously.
  • At mealtimes: No devices allowed in the dining room, ever. Even silenced ones.
  • Bathrooms: Nothing good comes from derailed morning and bedtime routines or emails sent from the toilet.
  • Homework time: Have kids work from a family computer that doesn’t have social media or email apps loaded on it.

Don’t make exceptions once you create these parameters, either. Otherwise, you may find yourself becoming a (possibly ineffective) technology nag, which is no fun.

3. Let kids be uncomfortable. Odds are, if you take your kids’ phones away in certain times and places – especially the car – they will be bored. They will want you to think that this boredom is a form of pain.

As parents, we naturally want to protect our kids from pain. This means that we step in and try to shield them from it, even in its minor forms, such as discomfort, disappointment and boredom.

But there is an enormous difference between discomfort – which is fine – and a full-blown stress response, which can actually damage our health.

The truth is that life can be difficult. Sometimes it’s just uncomfortable. At other times, we experience outright pain. Our kids need to know how to deal with both. More than that, it’s critical that they learn not to let discomfort become stress.

When parents shield kids from discomfort, it can lead to a downward spiral where smaller and smaller stressors cause a greater and greater stress response. This hypersensitivity to stress does not make kids stronger; it makes them fragile and reactive basket cases. It also makes them more likely to avoid the challenges that will help them grow intellectually and emotionally.

The way to prevent this downward spiral is to allow kids to be uncomfortable, rather than letting them numb discomfort with distractions, such as video games or social media. This means we let them deal with their boredom when faced with a long wait and nothing to do. We let them feel the deep disappointment that comes with not getting a part in the play or not making a team, instead of taking them out for ice cream “to cheer them up.” We acknowledge that their mistake was pretty embarrassing, instead of blaming someone else or denying that there is anything wrong.

As in all things parenting, we’ll best help our kids by helping ourselves, first. Feeling a little stressed? Please take this as permission to turn off your phone and leave your family to make their own dinner tonight, while you go to yoga and exhale.

Originally posted on US News & World Report, May 2017

10 Conversation Starters for Talking to Teens About Sex

Personally, I would love it if we could just have one “sex talk” with our kids and be done with it. Or, it would be great if they could just learn what they need to know about sex from their school’s puberty unit in science class.

But no such luck. Experts recommend that we talk to our teens regularly about uncomfortable topics such as masturbation, pornography and the dangers – and, perhaps even more awkwardly, the pleasures – of sex.

The stakes are high. We parents understand that there are risks related to rape, unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and that we need to make sure our kids have information about how to avoid these risks. But we also want more for them than to just avoid the bad stuff. When the timing is right for sex, we want it to be a positive part of their lives – one that brings more love, connection and pleasure than regret, pain and embarrassment.

So I’m mustering the courage to talk with my four teens more often about sex and sexuality. Here are the 10 topics I’m covering, along with some approaches I’m using:

1. Pornography: Research catalogued in the book “Your Brain on Porn” finds that in the last 15 years the rate of sexual dysfunction, including erectile dysfunction, has increased nearly 1000 percent in young men under the age of 25, and that this is related to pornography usage. Ask your kids how prevalent they think porn viewing is among their friends, and if they understand that although it can be very hard to look away from, it can really hurt them.

2. The upside of sexual activity: Kids often learn about the risks related to early or unprotected sexual activity at school, but they don’t tend to learn much about the joys of human sexuality. They know that there is something awesome about sex. So we lose credibility when we make it seem like it is nothing but dangerous. When we talk to them about the upside of sexual activity, we prompt a process of weighing the benefits with the risks. We want kids to think critically about sex, rather than just acting emotionally and impulsively. Ask your son or daughter, “What do you think the benefits are to being sexually active as a teenager?” Similarly, you might ask what they think the benefits of being sexually active are for college students as well as for adults.

3. Not everyone is doing it. In fact, more teens aren’t than are. Teenagers need to feel like they are with the majority, that they aren’t being left out. So it’s important for them to understand that, surprisingly, “hook-up culture” isn’t as big a thing as they think.

Here’s a conversation starter: According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of high schoolers have never dated, “hooked up” or had a romantic relationships with someone. Other research shows that 59 to 84 percent of teens ages of 15 to 17 have never had sex. At age 20, one-quarter of young adults are still virgins.

4. What you want your child to learn from your own experiences: This one is personal. My kids have listened with rapt attention when I’ve spilled the beans on myself. For example, I was date raped on a graduation trip after I’d been drinking. This happened to so many of my friends we wrote a book about it.

5. What do they desire sexually and romantically? Ask your teen, “Have you ever articulated for yourself or a partner what you want to feel or do when you become sexually active?”

Personally, I’ve found this conversation to be easier in the hypothetical, and my advice is to start having this conversation before your kids have boyfriends or girlfriends, if possible. The point is not to get teens to tell you their sexual desires (um, yuck), it’s to get them to think about it on their own, and to define it for themselves, and later, for their partner.

6. Consent is the wrong criteria. Although it is, of course, very important to understand that consent is mandatory, I’m with psychologist Lisa Damour in thinking that consent is an exceptionally low bar.

Here are some starter questions if your teen is potentially sexually active: “Have you asked what your partner wants sexually?” “How do your partner’s desires line up with your own?” Ask also if they’ve talked about only pursuing those activities where you have common desire, or “enthusiastic agreement,” as Damour calls it.

7. Rules of thumb: Help your teen establish these. You might start by asserting that if a person is too embarrassed to ask their partner intimate questions, about what they want out of a relationship or about their sexual desires, they aren’t ready for the intimacy of sexual activity. Then ask your teen if he or she disagrees and what your teen thinks are other good rules of thumb to keep in mind regarding sexual activity.

8. Good reasons and bad reasons to become sexually active: Research finds that one-quarter of young women regret losing their virginity to the “wrong” partner, and that one-fifth have significant regrets about having unprotected sex or progressing too quickly sexually in a relationship. Ask your teen, “What do you think about that?” “What do you think are some good reasons and bad reasons to become sexually active?”

9. Drugs and sex don’t mix. Sex is obviously much riskier – and also less pleasurable – while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and hopefully our kids know that we don’t approve of underage drinking or drug use, ever. But most kids need this spelled out for them repeatedly.

Ask your teen in the hypothetical about peers who engage in sexual activity while under the influence. What do they think about using “liquid courage” to do something they’d be too anxious or uncomfortable to do sober? Show them their inconsistencies – gently. For example, your teen may say it’s normal for college kids to have sex while under the influence. But asking if you could share your perspective, you might say, “You’ve decided that you only want to be with someone who is really into you. It seems like that would be hard to really know if there is drinking involved.”

10. Subtle – and not so subtle – sexual references: If someone tells a joke or you hear a song on the radio that refers to something sexual, ask your kids if they know what it refers to. If they say yes, ask them to tell you “what kids think that means these days,” as though the meaning might be different for their generation. If they don’t really know, explain what the reference means using plain language. In my experience, this has the nice side effect of making my kids not want to listen to sexually explicit music in the car or kitchen with me.

With all this, we need to try our best to ask lots of open-ended questions. We want to encourage our teens to share with us their innermost motivations. To do this, we can phrase our questions non-judgmentally in ways that will prompt them to elaborate. These conversations about sex are difficult – at least for me – and they require courage. But it’s better to suffer through the discomfort than to regret later not having had a handful of awkward conversations.

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If you’re looking for more ways to deepen your emotional connection with your kids, I hope you’ll check out my online class, The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Join thousands of parents who have experienced a positive shift in their household as a result of skills they’ve learned in this comprehensive online class. Learn more or enroll now here.

This post was originally written for U.S. News & World Report.

The New Sex Talk: 3 Tips to Get You Started

The summer before I started high school, unbeknownst to me, my mother tasked my father with giving me the “sex talk” on a six-hour road trip.

I had never kissed a boy, or seen an R-rated movie. We didn’t have the Internet yet. I didn’t know that people have sex for pleasure; that would be weird and gross. I honestly thought that sex was something adults did only a couple of times in their lives in order to have children.

About 20 minutes before we arrived at our destination, my dad said something like this: “Now that you are going to high school, boys are going to try to get you on the rack. Especially the older boys. Just say no.”

I gazed out at Highway 33, near Ojai, California, where ugly oil derricks were dunking their heads below the earth. Our old white Wagoneer was making a weird noise. I had no idea what my dad was talking about. Drugs, maybe?

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll say no,” I replied, still looking out the window.

One Thanksgiving dinner 22 years later, my dad used the phrase “he’s going to try to get her on the rack” again. The memory of that road trip when I was 14 years old came flooding back, and I finally realized what my dad was talking about all those years ago. I threw my head back and guffawed. My stoic German mother, usually highly composed, came undone when I told her why I was laughing. Two decades later, she was furious that no one had ever really talked to me about sex.

Needless to say, I’ve tried to be a bit clearer in discussing the birds and the bees with my own children, all teenagers now. Experts say kids do better when parents start talking to kids about the basic biology of sex when they are very young – as toddlers.

This post is for parents of kids who are starting to be exposed to the more complicated aspects of sexuality: pleasure and romance, unplanned pregnancy, “hooking up”, heartbreak – even prostitution and pornography. Most kids will learn about puberty, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases from their school’s sex ed program. But any kid who has ever seen even a fairly chaste romance movie knows that there’s a lot more to adult – and adolescent – sexuality than is taught formally at school. Part of the trick as a parent these days, I think, is in knowing what our kids are being exposed to at any given age. Here’s how to get started:

1. Ask questions and listen rather than simply sharing information. Here are some starter questions, which you’ll obviously have to modify based on the age and experience of your child:

  • “Do you know anyone who has watched porn? Where did they see it? How do you think it affected them?”
  • “What does it mean to ‘hook up’ among your friends?”
  • “How many of your friends are sexually active?” Or: “Do you think any of your friends are sexually active yet?” You could also ask if any of your child’s friends have kissed a boy or girl.

Brace yourself, and keep your best poker face on. Instead of instructing, just keep asking follow-up questions, such as “What do you think of that?” and “How does that make you feel?” If they tell you something concerning about a friend, inquire further. “Are you worried about her?” Or: “Do you think he needs help?”

Deal with discomfort by breathing deeply and slowly – not by preaching or avoiding the conversation. If we don’t stay relaxed, our kids will only remember that we nearly choked every time we tried to talk to them about sex. This will not make them likely to come to us when they have a pressing question or – heaven forbid – a serious problem in the sex department.

Times have changed, and so has how we talk to our kids about sex. Click To TweetThis new sex talk isn’t a lecture – mostly given to girls – but a series of short conversations that we have with our sons and daughters.” username=”raisinghappines”]

2. Foster closeness with your teen. Research shows that adolescents who have better relationships with their parents tend to have a lower likelihood of “early sexual intercourse initiation.” On the other hand, the same study showed that lower relationship quality and less parental monitoring increased the odds that a teen would initiate sex.

I try to spend a little bit of time every day alone with each of my kids, so that they always have a time when they know they can talk to me about their lives. We also have same gender “date nights” when I’ll take one of our daughters out to dinner and my husband will take our son out separately.

3. Don’t preach abstinence-only and forgo sharing other relevant information. Refrain from keeping kids in the dark about birth control and protection against sexually transmitted diseases, even if you believe abstinence is the best thing for your children.

Many parents fear sending a “mixed-message,” so the only message they send is that sex before marriage is not OK. But research clearly shows that teens in abstinence-only education programs are no more likely than those not in an abstinence-only program to delay sexual initiation, have fewer sexual partners, or abstain entirely from sex.

In other words, telling our children to remain abstinent doesn’t increase the odds that they will delay becoming sexually active, but it does deprive them of our guidance about sex. Instead of “Just say no,” give your kids guidelines for their sexual behavior while still giving them the information they need.

What do you most want your teen to know about sex? What are your expectations for them? You can give them information and still send a very clear message about what you think is best for them. Here is what I said to my kids once they got into high school: “I feel strongly that having sex while you are still a teenager is not likely to be in your best interest. That said, I want you to have information about birth control and STD protection, so that someday, when you are ready to have sex, you will be better prepared to prevent an unplanned pregnancy or disease.”

This new sex talk isn’t a lecture – mostly given to girls – but a series of short conversations that we have with our sons and daughters. Kids need our wisdom about how to know when they are ready for sex, and our advice on birth control. They need to talk to us about what they are seeing in the media, and how they experience their own sexuality. We need to talk to them about the pornography they’ve been exposed to. And they can benefit from hearing about our own experiences, both good and bad.

Just as we need to teach kids how to take care of their physical and emotional health, we parents need to teach our teens how to be healthy sexually. It’s hard to talk about sex with kids. It’s also the right thing to do. If you feel like you’re going to chicken out, simply take a deep breath. Feel your feet on the floor. You can do it.

* * * * *

If you’re looking for more ways to deepen your emotional connection with your kids, I hope you’ll check out my online class, The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Join thousands of parents who have experienced a positive shift in their household as a result of skills they’ve learned in this comprehensive online class. Learn more or enroll now here.

This post was originally written for U.S. News & World Report.

FREE Live Webinar: Awakening Joy in Kids

Mark your calendars! I’m hosting a free, 45-minute online webinar on January 10, 2017 with James Baraz and Michele Lilyanna. We’ll be talking about their new book Awakening Joy For Kids and sharing our top tips for resolving the issues that parents struggle with most. During this free, 45-minute webinar you’ll learn how to:

  • Support kids who are down or anxious.
  • Foster gratitude instead of entitlement.
  • Incorporate habits for more fulfilling parenting and happier kids.
  • Get kids to do boring but necessary tasks (like chores!)

Wouldn’t you and your family benefit from a little more joy? Learn more or register here.

My children and stepchildren

Why Being a Stepmom Makes Me a Better Parent

Though you probably didn’t realize that today is a national holiday celebrating blended families (who knew?), I’m taking a moment to relish being a stepmom. I absolutely adore my stepchildren, and I’m grateful that they’ve given me the opportunity to become a much better mother.

Imagine, if you’ll indulge me for a minute, what it must be like to be one of my children. As a  professional advice giver, I’m — let’s just be honest — bossy. I have an opinion (science-based) about everything. When people (not my children) seek out my coaching, wanting guidance for improving their happiness, their effectiveness at work, or their parenting, I’m more than happy to tell them not just what I think but what, specifically, to do.

So it hasn’t been easy to be Molly or Fiona, the guinea pigs on which I’ve tested all of my science-based parenting advice since not long after I gave birth to them. I’ve done my best to arm them with instructions for every possible situation. Once, dropping my kids off at sleepaway camp for the first time, I found myself suggesting to a very nervous Fiona a specific way to breathe and specific things she might think about to distract her from her anxiety. I had become so controlling that I was telling her how to breathe and exactly what to think.

The irony, of course, is that trying to control your children is frequently futile and usually counterproductive.

That’s the clear conclusion psychologist Wendy Grolnick has reached over two decades of watching parents talk to their children. Here’s the gist of her research: The children of controlling parents — those who tell their children exactly what to do, and when to do it — don’t do as well as kids whose parents are involved and supportive without being bossy. Children of “directive” parents, like me, tend to be less creative and resourceful, less persistent when faced with a challenge, less successful solving problems. They don’t like school as much, and they don’t achieve as much academically.

Enter my awesome stepchildren. They’ve been in my life for seven years. I’ve loved and supported them, but from a distance — we didn’t really live together until a few years ago. It isn’t that I haven’t disciplined them, or asked them to help out around the house, or offered an unpopular opinion. I have. I’ve taken away devices, made and enforced rules, helped them address thank-you notes, just like I do with Molly and Fiona.

But there is a major difference between the way that I parent my stepchildren and the way that I parent Molly and Fiona. Mainly, I’m just not as bossy. I’m more like a very involved aunty with my stepchildren than the helicopter mom I’m prone to being with my biological kids. I don’t criticize them, and I make an effort to hold my tongue when they do something that I find irritating.

I can more easily be supportive of them without being attached to the outcome; I can make a suggestion without caring whether or not it is taken. Instead of bossing my stepchildren around, expecting them to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it, I choose my requests carefully and try to voice them respectfully.

For example, I recently had an opportunity to teach both my stepdaughter, Macie, who is in 11th grade, and my 8th-grader, Molly, some new study skills. Unconsciously, I approached the kids differently. I was very directive with Molly, basically telling her what she had to do and then sitting next to her while she tried out my suggestions, correcting her every move. The following day, she was supposed to study on her own (using the new technique I’d given her). She tried, for a little while. And then, just like the kids in Grolnick’s studies, she got frustrated and gave up.

I didn’t realize my error with Molly until a few days later when Macie needed help studying for a test. I offered to teach her some study skills but was clear that I wouldn’t be offended if she didn’t want my help. I was delighted when she took me up on my offer. But I wasn’t as intent on having her put my tips to use.

My emotional stance in these two situations was completely different. With Molly, I was an anxious mom, worried about her school performance. With Macie, I was just there, loving the opportunity to teach her something that might be useful.

It dawned on me that I have been much more respectful of my stepchildren’s autonomy. I can support them without mistakenly thinking that their competence is my competence. I don’t worry (or even think) about how their successes or failures might reflect on me.

It is totally normal for parents to feel like they have more skin in the game with their biological children than stepchildren; psychologists call this tendency “ego-involvement.” In her wonderful book Pressured Parents, Stressed Out Kids, Grolnick writes,

Ego-involvement occurs when our protective and loving hardwiring collides with the competition in our children’s lives, prompting us wrap our own self-esteem around our children’s achievement. That gives us our own stake in how well our child performs.

However normal it may be, my “ego-involvement” wasn’t helping anyone; it may have actually been making Molly and Fiona less successful in their endeavors. Noticing how differently I was behaving with my stepchildren was a giant wake-up call. I needed to be more supportive of Molly and Fiona without being intrusive, to make requests without being so bossy.

After the study skills incident, I resolved to coach my children more like I coach my clients: gently, and without ego-attachment. Instead of dictating what I want when I want it (“Put that freaking device down! You should be helping me with dinner! Start peeling the carrots NOW!”), I’ve returned to the “ERN” approach I devised in Raising Happiness:

  1. Empathize. “I know you’d rather be looking at Instagram than helping in the kitchen right now. I’m dying to know what is cracking you up.”
  2. Provide Rationale. “But I need some help with dinner or we are going to be late for your performance.”
  3. Use Non-controlling language. This one is hard for me. Asking questions helps, as in: “Would you rather peel carrots or set the table? Either would be super helpful right now.” I don’t let myself say “should,” “have to,” or “I want you to,” which is what Grolnick sees as the epitome of controlling language.

None of this is about lowering my standards or relaxing rules; my children will still tell you that I’m the strictest parent on the block. But providing kids with high expectations and lots of structure is very different than being bossy and dictatorial.

As I’ve made an effort to be less controlling, my connections with my children have instantly deepened. Why? Jess Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, recently explained to me that “parental control kills connection.”

So on this Step Family Day, I’m grateful for my connections to my four children, all of whom I love with all my heart. And right now I’m especially grateful for my beautiful stepchildren. They have given me the opportunity to experience what it is like to love without the sticky attachment of my ego, and that is truly the sweet spot of motherhood.

Grit Needs Passion, Not Fear

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” — Albert Einstein

When I first started writing about how to foster “grit” in kids years ago, I thought I’d found a parenting silver bullet.

Early research from the celebrated psychologist Angela Duckworth showed that grit—or “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”—is one of the best predictors of elite performance, whether in the classroom or in the workforce. This was great news, it seemed to me, because while we can’t control kids’ (or our own) intelligence, we can grow grit, dramatically influencing their odds of succeeding.

But my thinking about hard work and grit has changed in the last few years, especially having recently read Duckworth’s excellent new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It’s definitely not a panacea for our high-pressure, low-happiness culture.

Let me explain. On the one hand, I credit most of my success to my single-minded and relentless pursuit of task completion. In high school and college, I studied harder than anyone I knew. I did ALL my homework, sometimes more than once. (My high-school English teacher, Michael Mulligan, still publicly teases me for re-writing the paper I wrote on the Lord of the Flies a half dozen times, a blatant grade-grubber trying desperately to improve the B+ he originally gave me.)

On the other hand, I also credit the anxiety disorder I suffered from in my early 20s to my single-minded and relentless pursuit of task completion. See, until my mid-30s, I did pretty much everything I thought I “should” do, as perfectly as I could. I also did everything everyone else thought I should do. I people-pleased up the wazoo.

I was nothing if not persistent. I would have maxed out Duckworth’s Grit Scale, giving myself a 5 out of 5 on items like this:

“I don’t give up easily”

“I am a hard worker”

“I finish whatever I begin”

“I am diligent”

“I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge”

But actually, I wasn’t all that gritty in the way that Duckworth actually defines grit (vs. how she measures it). Duckworth defines grit as persistence AND passion towards one’s long term goals. Mostly, I was just perfectionistic and persistent.

In many realms, I was missing the passion part of the grit equation. I was driven by fear, not love. I knew exactly what other people wanted me to pursue, and I could do it. And because I was so clear about what other people expected of me, I was sometimes a little shaky about what I really wanted to pursue for myself.

So that is why I deeply believe that grit isn’t something we should measure in adolescents to see if they can hack the stress that an academic institution is going to hurl their way. Nor should we admire or foster a character trait we call “grit” but that is really relentless, persistent perfectionism, absent the intrinsic motivation. Passionless persistence might lead to achievement, but it is joyless, anxious achievement at best.

But true grit — the kind that is equal measures passion and persistence — is a solid strategy for both success AND happiness. And it is something we can easily foster in ourselves, and in our children.

First, find and fuel passion. If you are a parent or teacher looking to foster grit in kids, the first step is to let go of what you want for them, and watch for what they are passionate about. Then, simply support their passions.

In order for kids to even know what they are interested in, they need exposure to a lot of different things. They will never know that they are passionate about tennis or Shakespeare or rock-climbing or piano if they never have a chance to try those things out. Parents, teachers, and coaches are important here; we must be willing and able to provide racquets and lessons and instruments.  The first sparks of a passion need oxygen before they will ignite.

Moreover, we must be willing to let an initial interest develop from fun, and from play. It has to have an ease to it at first. Adults can encourage, but they must remember that joy is their best tactic at this stage. A true passion never begins with hard work and practice — it begins with genuine interest and fun.

You can do this for yourself, too: Pay attention to what you actually yearn for, and practice ignoring what other (well meaning) people expect of you or even want for you. Does the thought of a particular project or activity make you feel light and free, or does it make you feel heavy? Pushing yourself towards the things that you dread may make you persistent, but it will not, ultimately, make you gritty. Or happy.

Second, practice tolerating discomfort. Given that life includes a boatload of disappointment, risk, pain and even failure, we need to develop an ironic comfort with discomfort if we are going to be able to persist in the face of challenge towards our goals.

The key is to notice where your comfort zone is, because it is often the very thing that is blocking your success and happiness. Perfectionism, ironically, used to be my comfort zone, for example. I was most “comfortable” relentlessly fulfilling everyone else’s expectations of me, and I felt uneasy and uncomfortable doing things that I feared would let other people down. It was hard for me to have the courage to pursue my own passions.

But we obviously need to have the courage to do the things that make us profoundly uncomfortable without becoming overly anxious or stressed out. Sometimes hard things are just hard things: There is difficulty, or even pain, but it isn’t worthy of a full-blown stress response. There isn’t actually anything to be afraid of.

The simplest way to increase our ability (and, frankly, willingness) to experience discomfort is to simply put ourselves in situations that make us uncomfortable. Take baby steps, and practice staying calm despite the discomfort. Keep taking deep breaths. Keep relaxing your shoulders. Notice your discomfort, and welcome it. It’s nothing to be afraid of.

Have difficult conversations. Take risks in relationships by showing people who you really are, or sharing what you are truly feeling. Let yourself notice when other people are suffering, and reach out to them; their discomfort, too, is nothing to be afraid of. Do the right thing, even when the right thing is hard.

These days, I don’t really know where I’d score on Duckworth’s Grit Scale. I practice being gritty in some arenas, downright flaky in others. In the same way that having a super-high IQ can make people so socially awkward that their relationships suffer, I think having a super-high persistence score used to threaten my happiness.

So does grit matter more than intelligence, as Duckworth’s early research implied?

It turns out that grit, at least the way it’s been measured for research, is no silver bullet. A recent meta-analysis of research on grit concluded that Duckworth’s grit scale doesn’t actually do as great a job at predicting success as the original research led us to believe.

At the same time, true grit — persistence AND passion — is clearly something we want both for our kids and for ourselves. Fortunately, the life-skills that make us gritty can be learned and practiced. When we identify what we are passionate about, and build the skills we need to be persistent in our pursuit of these passions…Watch out world. Little else will have a larger impact.