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Dear Christine: How Do I Motivate My Teen?

Bossing them around won’t work forever; we need to help teens manage their own lives.

Dear Christine,

I have two teenagers, a boy who is in high school and a girl who is in college. My daughter has always been self-motivated and a great student. I’ve never needed to nag her to do her homework, and she has always gotten good grades and great teacher comments.

My son is another story. His study skills are lacking. He doesn’t like school, and he doesn’t work very hard. I have to constantly be “on him” about his school work. We’ve had him tested for learning disabilities and ADHD, and he does not have either, although the tests showed that he does have great difficulty paying attention to things that he is not interested in.

He’s now a sophomore. Still, I’m constantly “helping” him with his homework, figuring out what work he has due, what tests he has coming up, or what assignments he might have failed to turn in. I’m afraid he won’t do it otherwise.

Our son says he does not want me to back off and that he wants me to continue helping him. At the same time, he is not exactly welcoming of my help in the moment. He’s often a little surly when I remind him of assignments, and he usually makes excuses for why he doesn’t have to work on something. He lacks self-motivation, and without me pushing him (and keeping him organized), I fear (1) that he might actually get worse grades; (2) that he won’t get a college degree; and (3) that this will limit his job prospects. Ultimately, I’m afraid that he’s going to end up living at home into his early adulthood, stuck on the couch playing video games.

I can’t help wishing that our son was more like our daughter. I want him to be more independent and self-motivated. Above all, I want him to do well enough in high school to go to a decent college. What do you recommend I do? If I’m honest, I’m looking for permission to keep propping our son up.

Thanks,
Parental Crutch

Dear Crutch,

So, it’s good that you have college and work aspirations for your son. But I’m afraid that your current efforts on his behalf aren’t going to pay off. Unfortunately, trying to control our children is frequently futile and usually counterproductive. In some ways, you are right to be worried: About a quarter of young men in the United States in their 20s are unemployed. That statistic is mind-blowing to the economists who track these things, given that men in their 20s have historically been the most reliably employed of any demographic. While the trend toward unemployment encompasses young men of all education levels, low-skilled men—like those without a college degree or training in a trade—are particularly likely to end up living back at home. A staggering 51 percent now live with their parents or another close relative. And what are they doing instead of working? (Hint: They aren’t going to school.) You’ve already guessed it; many of them are playing video games three or more hours a day.

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 tend to be less creative and resourceful, less persistent when faced with a challenge, less successful at solving problems. They don’t like school as much, and they don’t achieve as much academically.

And what’s true for children in terms of parental control is about a thousand times more true about teenagers. Once kids reach adolescence, they need to start managing their own lives, and they know this. Most kids with micromanaging parents resist what their parents want for them every chance they get. They do this not because they are lazy or short-sighted, but because they need to regain a sense of control.

This cannot be overstated: Healthy, self-disciplined, motivated teenagers have a strong sense of control over their lives. A mountain of research demonstrates that agency—having the power to affect your own life—is one of the most important factors for both success and happiness. Believing that we can influence our own lives through our own efforts predicts practically all of the positive outcomes that we want for our teens: better health and longevity, lower use of drugs and alcohol, lower stress, higher emotional well-being, greater intrinsic motivation and self-discipline, improved academic performance, and even career success.

You have an important choice, Crutch.

Choice A: Keep riding your son; keep him organized and on track. He’ll likely get a lot more homework turned in, he’ll study for tests he would have avoided or forgotten about, and he’ll apply to the colleges you put in front of him. The big question in my mind, though, is about what will happen when he’s off at college and he doesn’t have you there by his side to keep him on track.

Actually, in my mind, it’s not that big of a question.

The odds are he won’t make it. An astounding 56 percent of students who start at a four-year college drop out before they’ve earned a degree. Nearly a third drop out after just the first year. If your son doesn’t develop the study skills he needs to succeed (without you), he is not likely to develop them once he gets to college.

Which brings us to Choice B: Back off so that your son can build the skills he’ll need to survive without you. This does mean risking letting your son stumble, but at least he’ll be at home with you when he does.

Your son, of course, will not want you to back off. Why would he want to put in that kind of effort if you’ll do it for him? Plus, there is no risk for him right now; he can’t really fail if he doesn’t really try.

I’m not saying disengage from his life. It’s important for you to stay involved and supportive, but to do so without being directive or controlling. Set limits so that he knows you aren’t lowering your expectations. For example, if you expect him to maintain a B average, that’s great. What happens if he doesn’t do that? Decide as a family, and then be firm and consistent in enforcing your limits.

In fact, don’t dial back your effort at all, just shift your focus. Right now, you are propping your son up. Instead of putting all your energy into doing things that your son would be better off doing for himself, put your effort into supporting his self-motivation.

As I explained not long ago to another mom who was overhelping her husband, the way to foster self-motivation in others is to support their autonomy, their competence, and their relatedness. These are the three core psychological needs that, when filled, lead to self-motivation. You can choose to refocus your attention on promoting his self-motivation. Here’s how.

1. Give him more freedom.

He needs the freedom to fail on his own—and the freedom to succeed without having to give you credit. Your son can’t feel autonomous in his schoolwork if you are still the organizing force.

Instead of directing your son, ask him: “What’s your plan?” As in, “What’s your plan for getting your homework done this weekend?” Asking kids what their plan is makes it clear that they are still in control of their own behavior, and it helps put them in touch with their own motivations and intentions. Often kids simply need to make a plan—and sometimes if they aren’t asked to articulate their plan, they won’t make one. (Especially kids who are used to being nagged; those kids know that their parents will eventually get frustrated and do their planning for them.)

This not-making-a-plan thing is developmental, by the way—it is often more about their executive function than their motivation. Our frontal lobe, which enables us to make plans for the future, often doesn’t develop fully until our mid-20s. This doesn’t mean that teenagers can’t plan, or that we should do it for them; it just means that they need a little more support practicing planning than might be obvious given their other capabilities.

It’s also really important that we parents pay close attention to our tone of voice, especially if what we are saying could potentially limit our kids’ freedom in some way—if we are making a request that could be interpreted as pressure. Research suggests that moms who talk to their teens in a “controlling tone of voice” don’t tend to get a positive response, and they are more likely to start an argument.

It’s not enough to just stay neutral, unfortunately; although a neutral tone of voice is less likely to make teens defensive and argumentative, it was found to be equally ineffective in motivating kids.

What did work? The teens who were the most likely to carry out the request being made had parents who used a “supportive” and encouraging tone of voice.

2. Help him feel more competent.

If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that your son feels incompetent compared to his superstar sister. This likely leads to resignation. Why should he try if he’ll never be as good as her, anyway?

Help him see where he’s done really well in the past through his own effort (rather than your nagging). Don’t be afraid to ask him: Where do you feel most confident? And then help him see that it is his own effort that has led to that capability.

You can also support him in building new competencies. It sounds like he needs to build better study skills, for example. Who would be a good study skills coach for him? It’s important for him to develop his ability to learn and push himself outside of his comfort zone.

3. Finally, support his sense of belonging and connectedness with others, particularly at school.

Is there a teacher whom he feels connected to who can encourage him? Or a coach who is also willing to talk to him about his life as a student? Or a peer group who would encourage him to pay more attention to school work? Sometimes the best way we can help our kids is to help them find a community where they can thrive. One way to do this is to enlist the interest and attention of another adult.

Crutch, I’m very clear about this: The time to take the training wheels off is now. When he falls, let him pick himself up and try again. This will build autonomy and competence. You can celebrate his successes—this will build relatedness. Let him learn how to ask for the help he needs; when he gets it, it will expand his sense of belonging and connection to others.

Redirecting your energy towards promoting your son’s self-motivation will not likely be in your comfort zone. But once you get the hang of not nagging and not being so directive, your relationship with your son is sure to be far more rewarding—for you both.

Yours,
Christine

MORE ON RAISING HAPPY TEENS


If you like this post, I think you’ll love my new book, The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction.

If you’re in the Bay Area, we hope you’ll join us for the launch at the Hillside Club on February 20, 20! Find more information about my book events here.

 


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

How to Raise a High-Achiever

When we look at people who are at the top of their field, what do we know about how they got there?

We used to think that people were successful thanks to their genetic make-up—their inborn talents and innate passions. We called these people “gifted,” and assumed their success came from God-given talents more than their efforts.

The belief that success comes from God-given talent is not only discouraging—what if you don’t feel “gifted”?—but profoundly incorrect. Because researchers love to study super-high achievers, we know that the vast majority of achievements don’t spring from innate talent as much as they emerge from hard work and passion.

Angela Duckworth, the celebrated psychologist who first defined “grit” as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, has a theory about success. Instead of seeing achievement as simply a byproduct of IQ or intelligence or innate talent, Duckworth sees achievement as the product of skill and effort (Achievement = Skill x Effort) in the same way that we understand that Distance = Speed x Time. She explains:

Distance [is] an apt metaphor for achievement. What is achievement, after all, but an advance from a starting point to a goal? The farther the goal from the starting point, the greater the achievement. Just as distance is the multiplicative product of speed and time, it seems plausible that, holding opportunity constant, achievement is the multiplicative product of skill and effort…

Tremendous effort can compensate for modest skill, just as tremendous skill can compensate for modest effort, but not if either is zero.  Researchers across diverse fields have produced remarkably consistent findings that back up Duckworth’s theory. They find that innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being merely good at something to being truly great.

This is hard for most of us to believe, but K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and author of several landmark studies on this topic, has shown that even most physical advantages (like athletes who have larger hearts or more fast-twitch muscle fibers or more flexible joints—the things that seem the most undeniably genetic) are, in fact, the result of certain types of effort (which I describe below). Even super-skills, like “perfect pitch” in eminent musicians, have been shown to stem from training more than inborn talent. Hard to believe, but entirely true.

It isn’t just putting in any old effort that will build the right skills and lead to elite performance. People who rise to greatness tend to have three things in common: 1) They both practice and rest deliberately over time; 2) Their practice is fueled by passion and intrinsic interest; and 3) They wrestle adversity into success. These three things together are the very essence of “grit.” In the rest of this post, I’m going to zero in on the importance of deliberate and persistent practice; my next two posts will cover other facets of grit.

Deliberate practice

Elite performers practice a lot, in a really specific way. Accomplished people spend hours upon hours in “deliberate practice.” This isn’t just poking around on the piano because it is fun; it is consistently practicing to reach specific objectives—say, to be able to play a new piece that is just beyond their reach. In the beginning, they may practice a new phrase or even a single measure again and again and again.

Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t always pleasurable—far from it. In fact, it is the elite performer’s willingness to engage in hard or, quite often, very boring, practice that distinguishes people who are good at their chosen activity from those who are the very best at it.

There are a few ways to learn how to spell words for a Spelling Bee, for example. One way is to simply pay attention to words when you read for pleasure. Another way is to have your friends and family quiz you. But how exciting must it be to study long lists alone?

Yet it turns out that the most effective way to become a National Spelling Bee champion is the third option, solitary study. (This explains why I’d be lost without spell-check.) The highest performers in the National Spelling Bee spend the most time in this type of deliberate practice—the most effective, but probably the least fun, way to learn to spell obscure words.

What typically predicts how much effective-but-boring deliberate practice a champion engages in? In the Spelling Bee study, it was grit. The champions’ perseverance and passion for their long-term goals enabled them to persist with a preparation technique (solitary study) that was intrinsically less rewarding but far more effective than other techniques. Grit gives us the ability to practice the right thing, rather than to just practice what is fun.

Persistence over time

High-achievers also practice consistently over a pretty long period of time. Ericsson says that “elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.” Spending a half hour jogging over the weekend isn’t going to make you a great runner, but training every day might. Dabbling with your paints every once in awhile isn’t going to make you a great artist, but practicing your drawing every day for a decade might.

True masters gain experience over the long haul—specifically, for 10 years of dedicated work, or 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller Outliers, made the “10-year-rule” famous by colorfully illustrating Ericsson’s research. Most successful people average 10 years of practice and experience before becoming truly accomplished. Even child-prodigies generally work at it for a decade or more. Bobby Fischer became a chess grandmaster at 16 years old, but he’d been studying since he was 7. Tiger Woods had been working on his golf game for 15 years when he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship.

And there is something else: People who go to the top of their fields don’t just practice deliberately and persistently, they also rest strategically. This is a key component of success, and one that we often overlook in our 24/7 go go go culture.

For more about the science of rest and how it contributes to performance, check out my next post!

If you like this series of posts, I think you’ll love my book The New Adolescence. Kids today are growing up in an entirely new world, and this has huge implications for our parenting. I am passionate about getting the word out about how we can help teenagers today. Please help me spread the word!  Learn more here.

How to Get Your Kid to Tell You Everything

Parents are always asking me how to get their kids to talk to them more (especially the parents of boys), how to get kids to say what really happened at school during the day. We parents want information! We feel that in exchange for our nurturance and worry and everything we did to get them ready for school, we should at least get to know what’s happening there, and in their lives!

So how can we get more than a “fine” out of our kids when we ask them “How was school?” Here are some ideas.

 1. Set aside 10 minutes a day to be utterly present.

What (or whether) kids choose to share with us has a lot to do with their personality, of course. But a factor that is more within our control is our connection with them. We can lay a foundation of trust and connection using what my kids called “special time” when they were little. Every day for at least 10 minutes, I try to do something with each of my kids that they choose. When they were younger, it often meant playing a game, reading together on the couch, or walking the dog.  Now that they are teenagers, it’s covert time. One of them might linger at the dinner table for a few minutes. Another might hint that they’d like help making breakfast. Or someone might consent to walking the dog with me. Last night my 17-year-old stepson wandered into our bedroom where my husband and I were reading and heaved himself onto our bed; he was procrastinating, of course, but he also was thrilled to have me tickle his back tickled like I used to do when he was little. While they might not consider any of these moments “special time,” like they used to, I do. I put down my phone or my reading or whatever else I was doing and I pay attention.

This may sound easy, but for me, it’s not; in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, 10 or 20 minutes per kid can be hard to find. That may seem ridiculous to you—I spend longer doing things that are much less important everyday—but between homework and dinnertime and bedtime giving kids our undivided attention every day can be hard.

Oh, and also there’s the fact that, at least when my kids were little, I often didn’t actually want to do what the kids wanted to do.

For example, one of my daughters used to read dystopian and romance novels voraciously, and a favorite activity is to “fan girl” the authors. When I had one-on-one time with her, she wanted to tell me in excruciating detail about what she was reading. It sounds like a fun book club, I know, but it really wasn’t. Too much blow-by-blow detail.

My instinct was to roll my eyes and not hang out with her while she wrote a letter to John Greene. But when I managed to be present with her in all her fan-girl glory, not judging the or rejecting her current passion, she felt more connected to me, and vice versa. She learned that she could trust me with her inner world.

Moreover, when I consistently gave her this “special time” — and when I set aside my phone or my work or my sleep for her now — she feels secure in the knowledge that she is one of my highest priorities, and that she can count on me to be there for her. It is during this special time that she is most likely to open up and tell me about her life at school, and in general.

2. Be honest about why you want to know about your kids’ day.

Why is it so important to you that you know what is happening at school? There are legitimate reasons to want to know, and reasons that push kids away.

Here’s the thing: Our kids’ lives are not our lives, and we are not entitled to emotional access to their inner or social worlds. No matter how beautiful or painful things might be for them, it is their journey, not ours. We are support along their journey, but we aren’t heroes in their stories. They are the heroes. We might be desperately curious about what is happening with them, but their lives are still their lives, which they can choose to share—or not.

A kid’s primary goal in life is to achieve belonging and significance. (Read more about this in Amy McCready’s fantastic book, The “Me Me Me” Epidemic.) Actually, it is a human being’s primary goal to achieve belonging and significance. This is one reason that we parents want all the gory details of our children’s lives at school. We want to know that we belong in our children’s lives, that our role is significant.

But when we use our children to generate our own sense of belonging and significance, kids can smell our neediness a million miles away. Parental insecurity and anxiety is a heavy burden for a child or a teen to bear, and most kids (people!) will avoid it like the plague. Our kids can only truly connect with us when we don’t depend on them for our own sense of self or significance. This bears repeating: Our kids can’t really connect with us when our own fulfillment, happiness, or identity depends on them or what they do.

We can, however, ask our kids about their day as a way to fulfill their need for connection, belonging, and significance. We can act as curious-but-neutral witnesses to the beautiful mess of their lives. Ultimately, as they grow to trust our motivations, we become a place where our children can share even their most vulnerable feelings without also fearing how we will react.

3. Ask them about the worst part of their day.

Watch for the time and place when your child feels safe and has the energy to reveal him or herself to you. Hint: It probably isn’t when they, or you, walk in the door after school or work. Most kids need time to rest and make the transition from school to home. And most kids don’t want an audience of siblings, or the carpool.

When everyone is ready (though I recommend not opening this can of worms at bedtime), ask them about the part of their day that was least satisfying. I might say something like, “What was the most stressful part of school today?” Or “Was there a time today when you felt nervous or anxious or afraid?” 

We ask kids this not because we want the dirt or the gossip or because we delight in playground or high school drama. Do not ask this question until you are ready and able to stay neutral and unemotional. Don’t ask this if you are inclined to jump in and solve all their problems for them.

Ask only when you are able to accept their uncomfortable emotions. Acceptance means that you hear what is going on without asking why they feel the way they do, without offering a judgement about anyone or anything they are describing to you.

Ask only when you are able to label and validate their emotions, when you are able to neutrally help them understand what exactly they are feeling, and where in their body that feeling lives.

Why ask about the negative rather than the positive? Because, as Dr. Shefali writes in Out of Control,

Inability to sit in the pain of life, whether that of our child or ourselves, shortchanges us, since only to the degree we can be with pain are we also able to experience the unbridled joy of life. In other words, it’s our ability to experience the burning sting of our pain, without assuaging it, that empowers us to receive joy in all its magnificence. 

We want kids to learn that all feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, are okay. Eventually, we can help kids understand how their emotions often drive their behavior—and that while all emotions are okay, all behavior is not equally effective in helping them reach their goals.

So why, in the end, do ask them how their day was?

Because we want to be an unconditionally loving place in our kids’ lives, where they will always be able to touch their own significance and feel their own belonging. We want to be the place where they can unburden themselves from life’s difficulties—so that, ultimately, they are able to receive life’s beauty, in all its magnificence.

My children and stepchildren

How Being a Stepmom Makes Me a Better Parent

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 (albeit 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 a decade. I’ve loved and supported them, but at first from a distance — we didn’t really live together until about five 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.

Take the time that I had an opportunity to teach both my stepdaughter, Macie, who was at the time in 9th grade, and Molly, then in 6th grade, 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.

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. Click To Tweet

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 Snapchat than helping in the kitchen right now. I’m dying to know what is cracking you up.”
  2. Provide Rationale. “I do need some help with dinner, because we don’t have much time before we need to leave for your performance.”
  3. Use Non-controlling language — don’t dictate or boss kids around. 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, explained to me that “parental control kills connection.”

So on this Mother’s 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.

Passion + Adversity = Success?

Now that the kids are back in school, I’m thinking about what really leads to success—as well as happiness. Part 3 in a 3 part series. Click here to read Part 1  and here to read Part 2.

When I was graduating from college, I didn’t look for work that I felt passionate about because I assumed there were no good jobs that would involve my interests. My intention was to get the most prestigious, high-paying job I could. At that time, corporations recruited on Ivy League campuses, and I interviewed for advertising and brand management jobs that seemed to fit my internship experiences and creativity.

I landed a prestigious and high-paying job in marketing management. Unfortunately, I hated the job. I didn’t feel like I was actually doing anything but clocking in, checking tasks off a list, and heading home. I started therapy for anxiety. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted in life.

When I started studying the sociology of happiness six years later, my world was set ablaze. No one else particularly thought what I was doing was a great idea; one professor told me to “at least stop calling it happiness” if I was studying “subjective well-being,” because people were going to think that I was “not very smart.” After my struggle with anxiety in corporate America, I could have cared less what others thought of me. I paid no attention to what type of research was going to get me a tenured track position; I was too thrilled by all I was learning. I think it worked out pretty well for me.

And I’m not alone. In my first post in this series on grit and elite performance, I emphasize how success requires a whole lot of practice, which can often be unpleasurable. Yet the consistent and deliberate practice of elite performers is nearly always fueled by an innate interest in what they’re doing.

In other words, passion is a core component of grit.

Research convincingly shows that when we perceive a child as being innately talented or gifted, or as showing great promise for something, what we are really perceiving is interest, not talent. A four-year-old who pretends to play the violin with a stick and demonstrates an unusual interest in classical music does, indeed, show promise as a violinist. She does not, however, show talent yet. Her interest in the music at such an early age may stimulate a lot of things that lead her to virtuosity, like early music instruction and parents who encourage her to practice deliberately and consistently. But early interest is not the same as early achievement. As we saw in the first post in this series, achievement takes both effort and skill, neither of which the four-year-old has had enough time to develop.

Here’s the bottom line: The practice and effort that leads to success and happiness over the long run is fueled by intrinsic desire, not hard-driving parents or social expectations. In fact, my passion for the science of happiness probably developed better—and my chances for success increased—because there was no one pushing me to achieve.

Falling down
So passion is one more thing—in addition to rigorous practice and strategic resting—that elite performers have in common. All that passion comes in especially handy when we consider another important ingredient to success: failure.

Elite performers turn adversity into success. Most greats don’t just pile up one achievement after the next. Failure is a key part of growth and, eventually, elite performance: J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers (and before she even wrote the book she suffered a stream of potentially devastating personal failures). Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team. Abraham Lincoln, probably the most famous example of failure contributing to success, suffered a series of lost elections (along with some notable successes) before he went on to become one of our greatest presidents.

Consider that 75 percent of all people experience some form of trauma in life, and about 20 percent of all people are likely to experience a traumatic life-event within a given year. So the odds are good that our lives aren’t going to be free from pain and suffering, no matter how well-off or well-positioned we are. (That said, socioeconomic status does matter; while wealth doesn’t insure us against many disasters, it does make many types of adverse life-events fewer and farther between.)

Since adversity in life is a given, our success and happiness depend on our ability not just to cope with it but to actually grow because of it. Professionally, we have the greatest potential to grow when we challenge ourselves in our field just beyond our comfort zone. This means risking fear, embarrassment, errors, or even full-blown failure. And it means gaining new skills and abilities that contribute to our greater mastery and success in the future.

Because grit is a combination of persistence and passion, adversity plays a significant role in helping us develop both of those qualities. Interestingly, a vast body of scientific research shows that the stress we experience as a result of adversity—and how we respond to that stress—tends to predict how much we will benefit from it. The people who report the most growth following hardship are notthe people who are entirely stress-resistant in the face of adversity. Instead, the people who grow the most are actually the ones who are a little “shaken up,” and even exhibit a degree of posttraumatic stress. So if we don’t feel some stress in the face of a difficult situation, odds are we won’t grow from it.

Failure—and adversity in general—is life’s great teacher. While there might not be anything good in misfortune, as Viktor Frankl wisely reminds us, it is often possible to wrench something good out of misfortune. We know that adverse life-events—a plane crash, a terrorist bombing, breast cancer—can trigger depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress syndrome. But what most of us don’t realize is that posttraumatic growth, as researchers call it, can also awaken us to new strength and wisdom. Misfortune—even tragedy—has the potential to give our lives new meaning and a new sense of purpose, and in this way, adversity also contributes to the passion part of the grit equation.

Stephen Joseph, a preeminent expert on posttraumatic growth and the author of What Doesn’t Kill Us, puts it like this: “Adversity, like the grit that creates the pearl, is often what propels people to become more true to themselves, take on new challenges, and view life from a wider perspective.”

Read Part 1 of this series here.

Read Part 2 of this series here.

If you like this series of posts, I think you’ll love my book The New Adolescence. Kids today are growing up in an entirely new world, and this has huge implications for our parenting. I am passionate about getting the word out about how we can help teenagers today. Please help me spread the word!  Learn more here.

Want to Feel Appreciated on Mother’s Day?

Here’s an icky confession: I used to dread Mother’s Day.

When I first became a mother, the holiday somehow left me feeling unappreciated. I tended to get in a funk, and not out of grief or some sort of well-defined pain — I can only imagine how hard Mother’s Day must be for someone who has lost their mother. I felt bad in a bratty way, like a toddler who is pissed that she’s not getting what she wants. The worst version of myself has typically made her appearance, ironically, on the day that we were supposed to be celebrating my best, most beloved, self.

What is it that left me so resentful on Mother’s Day? What did I want so much that I wasn’t getting?

Until a couple of years ago, I thought it was about gratitude. I wanted to be appreciated on Mother’s Day in the way that we used to show appreciation to my mother. Research shows that when we express gratitude in our relationships, we become more attuned to our family member’s efforts on our behalf. I was hoping for a little more attunement to all the work I do as a mom — mostly from my husband, but also the kids.

Until last year, I always dreaded — no, hated — Mother’s Day. Click To Tweet

At least the way I remember it (I’m a little afraid to ask my mom for verification; it just now occurred to me that my memory is probably a little rosy), we’d bring my mom breakfast in bed, showering her with homemade cards and gifts. My dad would give my mom a funny card and a gift that he’d bought. We’d take a family bike ride on the path around St. Mary’s College, with a picnic that my dad and I packed with help from the deli at Black’s Market. Norman Rockwell could’ve painted us.

None of that actually seems hard to recreate, but for the love of God my family has never even come close. The worst Mother’s Day I ever had was the year that I lowered my expectations and then laid them out clearly for my husband. “I’m fine with no gifts,” I explained, “So long as there are cards and a family activity.” This did not happen. 

For the record, three of the four children made me BEAUTIFUL, heartfelt Mother’s Day cards. They were practically set to music they were so thoughtful and moving.

But that was not enough for me.

Expectations, even low ones, are a tricky thing. Unfulfilled, they set us up to ruin what is actually happening by ruminating over what we think ought to be happening. Painful thoughts — How could he not do this for me given all I do for this family??! Does he not appreciate me at all? — start to loop endlessly, triggering waves of disappointment.

So how could I, once and for all, make Mother’s Day different? I had already lowered my expectations to no material gifts, and that didn’t help me much; I’m not sure I can lower them to nothing. In past years, I’ve made a massive effort to focus on myself less by helping others, but ultimately, even that didn’t really prevent me from feeling unappreciated myself. I felt entitled to a little gratitude, dammit.

(Let’s not miss the irony here: Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude. Rarely do we attract the opposite of what we feel. Just as we don’t foster other people’s love by lashing out at them, my unbridled sense of entitlement wasn’t exactly generating a mountain of appreciation.)

Emotional traps like this — obsessing over my feelings of unmet expectations — are usually triggered by a mistaken belief. So where was the error in my thinking?

I really was feeling unappreciated by my husband, Mark. I felt like I sacrificed more for our family and children, and that he should recognize and feel grateful for that. I held a deep seated conviction that I gave more. I spent more time doing the hardest parenting work, creating and enforcing structure and discipline, managing the near-constant drama of life with three teenage girls and an active adolescent boy.

Now, I should mention that, according to research, I am not alone in believing that I do more for our family than Mark — but I might not be correct. When researchers add up the percent of work each person in a couple says he or she does, they consistently find that the total ends up being more than 100 percent. So if a mom says she does 65 percent of the household work, and her husband says he contributes a solid 50 percent . . . there is a 15 percent error in there somewhere. Perhaps this was the heart of my mistaken belief?

My Mother’s Day funk did grow out of my belief that I do and sacrifice more for our family than my husband does. And weirdly, I somehow thought that this seemingly massive imbalance could be righted through a Mother’s Day display of profound appreciation.

This is funny to me now, because clearly even the most magical Mother’s Day outing would not dissolve my resentment. We needed to deal with the source of my bitterness.

“We need counseling,” I announced to Mark. I sat down to work through what I wanted help resolving. What did I want Mark to do differently?

What I found, when I really thought hard about it, was that my assumptions about our division of labor were blatantly untrue. Believe me, I was shocked by this revelation. But it turned out that I had loads of evidence suggesting I don’t do more for our family than Mark.

True, I do the bulk of the emotional labor. But he does nearly all the house and garden maintenance. We spend about the same amount of time in the car driving kids around. I plan our meals and cook; he shops and cleans up. We’ve got a division of labor where he does the things he likes to do best (like mowing the lawn) while I get to do the things that I love to do (like talking to the kids about their feelings). I am lucky to have a truly equal partnership.

I was harboring resentment out of habit rather than reality.

At times, being a mother can feel so overwhelming; when the kids were little, I sometimes felt a little victimized by it all, a little trapped by the sheer magnitude of the way they’d taken over my life. My husband simply couldn’t do many of the things that I was doing. Pregnancy, labor and delivery, and breastfeeding bred loads of occasions when only mama would do. My family could never repay me for the sacrifices I’d made for them — but they could, and should, show me a little gratitude for it. Hence my feelings of entitlement to a little Mother’s Day appreciation.

Billy Collin’s wrote a poem about this. In it, Collins recounts the thousands of meals his mom made him, and the good education she provided, and all the other zillions of things she did for him. In return he gave her . . . a lanyard he made at camp. Collins concludes:

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was as sure as a boy could be

that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

Now, this is what I wish to tell my children and husband both: We are even, with or without lanyards and family outings on Mother’s Day.

Because I am not trapped. I have not been victimized. There is no need for reparation. You don’t owe me a darn thing, even gratitude. I don’t have to do any of the many things I do for you or our family. I choose to do them. I do them because I love each of you so very much. Moreover, this love that I feel for you is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. It is a great joy to be a mother in this family, your family. I’m deeply, profoundly grateful for all we are and all we have — together.

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