The Most Important Thing You Can Do To Help Your Child Be Successful

I realized this week that I’ve fallen into a common (and all-to-familiar) parenting trap again – I’ve allowed urgent issues to crowd out the important ones.  Once again, homework, housework, and sports practices have crowded out time for meaningful conversations and the quiet time I need for reflecting and planning.  The good news is that I’m not alone (yes, I see you over there).  The even better news is that I’ve been here before, and I know how we can get out.

Our escape hinges on this:  we need to focus on just one thing.

I’m often overwhelmed when I think about big issues like climate change, poverty, and our warped healthcare system.  I’m too busy to get my hair cut, so how am I supposed to help the polar bears?  But even things that are closer to home and more immediately relevant, like thinking deeply about what I want my sons to know before they go out into the world, and what I can do to help them develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need, can feel too daunting to consider.  But here’s the key I don’t have to make an enormous list and do a lot of planning, because even one thing can be enough to make a world of difference. 

Fortunately, figuring out what our kids need to be successful has been the subject of much research lately.  And while there are many character traits and experiences that can help them grow into healthy, happy adults, the experts pretty much agree that there’s one thing in particular that will ensure their success in life:  persistence. 

Persistence is the ability to stay focused and committed to something, regardless of challenges and setbacks, and it’s an even stronger predictor of success than natural talent or intelligence.  Sometimes this trait is called “grit”, and it isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us in every moment.   But we can cultivate it through our beliefs and habits, and we can help our kids learn to do this, too.  Here’s how: 

  • Teach a “growth mindset”.   Teach your child that intelligence and abilities are not “fixed” – they can be cultivated with effort.   As reported in “Mindset, The New Psychology of Success”, Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has found that, “Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
    • Encourage inquiry and curiosity.  Once kids adopt a growth mindset, self-motivation for learning and curiosity will naturally emerge.  Asking meaningful questions will help stimulate curiosity, according to Daniel Willingham in “Why Don’t Students Like School?”, and will support students in staying engaged and focused. 
    • Plan for failure.  Failure is certainly difficult, but learning to embrace it as a natural part of the learning and growing process, and seizing it as an opportunity to reflect and develop even more meaningful questions, will support our kids in persevering through it.  In fact, in his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg suggests that those of us who make an actual plan for failure consistently respond more effectively when it happens. 
    • Foster emotional awareness.  Frustration and other negative emotions can throw anyone off track.  According to Dan Siegel in “The Whole Brain Child”, the simple act of recognizing and naming these emotions when they flood our children’s pre-frontal cortex, the decision-making area of the brain, allows our kids to “make sense of the experience and feel more in control” so they can make better choices and continue to move forward.

      So this is the one thing we can do, need to do, to help our kids be successful:  teach them how to persevere.  Even those of us who are severely limited by time and energy can weave the messages about the value of effort, inquiry, failure, and emotional awareness into every-day activities – no special planning, tools, or classes required!  However, if you do find that you have a few minutes and are interested in learning more about any of these areas, I highly recommend picking up any of the books mentioned above – each is worthy of your time.

      And who knows? Just maybe, with a little luck, our persevering kids will actually solve the problems of climate change, poverty, and healthcare so I can stop worrying about polar bears and finally focus on cleaning out my kitchen pantry.

      About Lori Dunlap

      Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. In addition to homeschooling her two sons, she writes regularly about education and parenting issues. You can read her blog at, or connect with her on Facebook:

      Posted on April 24, 2013, in Character Development, Common Concerns, Education, Parenting. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

      1. A lot of good information in very little space! Well said.


      2. Great article Lori and I know from personal experience that persistence is one trait that we all need to succeed but I just read an article (Die Another Day) in the October 2012 Backpacker magazine (The Survival Issue) that had me thinking and realizing that I am guilty of, and you did make a mention, sometimes a need to change course.

        Of course, because of the nature of this magazine this article was talking about dangerous treks climbing mountains and was illustrating that some experienced climbers died because they were committed to making it to the top when their own intuition (God given) knew better. The article mentioned some research that was done by psychologist Barry Staw in 1976 titled “Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment to a Course of Action” which is supposed to be a classic in the business world. BTW; I am going to research this paper further on my own as my time permits. In a quick summary, Barry identifies 3 key of escalating commitments:
        1) Optimism and illusion of control,
        2) Self justification,
        3) Sunk costs.

        Don't get me wrong because I firmly believe and instill in our homeschool children to try, try again / don't give up but we must also strike a balance with them that failing at one thing / course is not bad thing, if you learn something from it (big corporations have a tendency of punishing people that try something and don't make it a success “every time”). Thomas Edison had many great inventions but he also had some that just didn't work out AND THAT WAS OK TOO!

        So, to finally get to the 13 word point: “Persistence with balanced perspective and understanding failures are an acceptable step in growth” are a key for success.

        Other areas I also see that can make one successful:

        1) Exposure / basic understanding to a wide variety of the real things and people in life. IE: How to use tools, understanding food / nutrients. . ., food production, healthcare & alternative, cultures / religions of the world. . .

        2) Learning from history not just about history. Too often students are tested on names, date, places and the events that happened in history but they never understood the lesson that should have been learned from what happened. IE: The Great Depression. . .

        3) The most important for last, spending quality family time together doing things, even if it's watching a movie. Children can become too desensitized to care about others if they just get passed from one paid and restricted caretaker to another!

        As a side note; we spend a lot of time in the van running places, as probably many others out there do too I am sure, so we have an in-vehicle DVD player to keep the children occupied and prevent driver distractions when it “becomes necessary” to do so. On this “entertainment unit” we only let educational documentary type shows to be watched! Discovery channel. . . (about the world / cultures / people / history, animals, birds, seas, survival, how things work, cooking, “how to. . .”) videos are used to entertain and teach (no I-Pads. . . allowed). They have a choice, watch the videos in our DVD selection or look out the window or read some books.

        It's all good, thanks and God bless


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