The big news last week was the college admissions scandal centered around how wealthy and powerful parents are creating a pathway for their children to succeed, often with a plow made of cash. This scandal involved parents, a prominent college prep counselor and athletic coaches committing fraud to give these children a guaranteed spot in prestigious colleges. Is this a new trend in parenting? How do parents give their children the tools to improve school performance without sacrificing children's emotional health (or committing a crime)?
The New York Times this past Sunday headlined an article in the Style section on this new dangerous trend called "snowplow parenting", where parents prevent their children from experiencing essential real-life learning because they do not want to risk the child failing. They take the learning experience away from the child and put it in the hands of an expert to ensure a 'perfect' end result.
To help their children succeed, these parents intervene to such an extreme that the children don't ever have to confront and overcome growth-producing obstacles.
This style is an even more unhealthy 'helicopter' parenting, where parents hover over their children and intervene whenever they see the child veering off of what they deem the right behavior. With snowplow parenting, the child or teenager is never required to do the work. One example from the New York Times article was a mother who encouraged her child to start a fundraiser but then asked the donors for the money herself.
Both helicopter and snowplow parenting fail to give children the valuable experience of failing, learning from mistakes and having to re-invent themselves. This results in low tolerance of the fact that life doesn't always go their way and trouble tolerating their emotions when facing challenges. It doesn't prepare them for leaving home and succeeding academically or socially at college and beyond.
The commonality between both styles is that the parents are being driven by fear. It is fear-based parenting and may not be consciously acknowledged by the parent.
There are two signs that show fear is the main motivator. One sign is that the parent is engaged in a high level of controlling behavior and the second is that personal boundaries are inappropriately being violated.
What is the purpose of fear biologically? Fear is what the brain is supposed to produce when there is clear and present danger to the wellbeing of parents or their children. Controlling behaviors should only be active when the child is actually in danger.
Is that SAT exam a threat to the teenager's safety? No. The outcome of that exam may impact the range of choices the child has for schools but it is not a threat to their immediate survival. When parents are controlling exam preparation or even, as seen in the news, paying others to take the exam for their children, they are acting out of irrational fear. The primitive brain that controls a fear response is reacting as if their children won't survive in a non-Ivy league college.
The second behavior that signals fear-based parenting is violating boundaries. In the snowplow parenting the parent is actually taking over the behaviors and choices that are the child's. Having someone take exams for them, having a picture photoshopped into a sporting event so the child looks like he or she is in an athletics program. Doing something illegal, like bribing coaches.
These are extreme examples of violating boundaries. In general, people violate healthy boundaries only when they feel like the threat of not doing so is greater than the risk associated. The person is often impulsive and the violation is acted out without taking the time to think through the consequences or other viable options.
The goal of the helicopter and snowplow parents is one all parents have in common: to help their children succeed in school and get the top grades needed to eventually be accepted to a competitive college. And ask any parent and they usually say that they want their children to be happy. That's the ultimate goal.
How do we help our children perform well academically, get top grades, engage in sports and after school activities, and not be stressed and have performance anxiety? Here is a five-point plan for helping our children succeed by creating the mental and emotional fitness they need to have a competitive edge and improve academic performance.
Own Your Fear
First parents have to acknowledge that their fears are their own. The children did not create the worries and the children cannot make the parent feel secure about the future. While parent's fears are firmly attached to their children's successes and failures, those feelings are not the child's responsibility to resolve through whatever means the parent imagines, such as high SAT scores or winning a tennis tournament.
When parents are worried about their children's futures it usually results in emotional distance between the parent and the child, and also makes the child anxious. When was the last time you wanted to get closer to someone who was worried about your future and wanted to control your behavior?
Take Care of your stressors
Fear is the brain's alarm system to alert the individual to danger. It activates our primitive "reptilian" brain. This area of the brain is not consciously controlled, it is very simple and only thinks about staying alive. Also called the stress response, the brain uses its fight, flight, or freeze--punch it, run from it, or play dead--to problem solve. By default, fear-based helicopter and snowplow parenting allows this part of our brain to parent.
When parents take inventory of their stressors-- those things the brain perceives as a dangerous threat, such as "my child might not get into his first-choice college" or "the children have to get perfect grades"-- they can then ask the questions, "Is this a life-threatening situation?" and "Is this even going to cause bodily harm?" If the answer is no, then it is essential to develop a better plan for managing stress.
When we calm down and reset ourselves, we help the body shift out of a stress response and into a relaxation response. In a relaxation response the brain uses different strategies like logic, inspiration, and facts, to problem solve.
Both parents and their children benefit when stress management is part of helping our children succeed. Parents teach this skill through modeling and all long-term successful people identify and manage their stressors.
Students can be successful in the short term by using the fight/flight stress response of the brain to problem solve but that is using the body's sprint energy long term. Burn-out is inevitable with the this strategy.
If parents identify when they are under stress and actively seeking out supports to de-stress they model using the right energy for long-term success.
Provide brain training for emotional fitness
The reason parents work so hard for their children, misguided in their motivation or not, is because they want their children to succeed and ultimately, to be happy in their lives. Parents need to remember to value the emotional health of their children and actively work to support and protect it.
No matter how brilliant your child is, if she have performance anxiety she won't show her talents at the level that matches her skills. And if your child is one of the three percent that gets into Yale, but is worried all the time, she will struggle to learn and to enjoy her college experience. EQ, or emotional intelligence, is as important as IQ.
Emotional intelligence is self awareness, and the ability to know and regulate your own emotions. It includes social skills, understanding and empathizing with others' feelings and understanding out to successfully navigate social interactions. Graduate and medical schools are now using EQ tests as part of their entrance exams.
Brain training for emotional wellness can include the following supports.
- Tell them every day that you love them for themselves not for what they accomplish. And mean it. Parents have a lot of power to communicate the fundamental goodness each child has through taking the time to tell them they are loved.
- Hug them everyday.
- Do not yell at your children. If you do lose your cool, model good emotional intelligence by apologizing when you are calmer.
- Laugh together a few times a week. Watch a comedian if they're teenagers, or a funny children's show. Be silly with them.
- Help your children get regular cardiovascular exercise. This is different than perfecting a sport. Good cardiovascular workout 20 minutes a few times a week is a very powerful de-stressor.
- Talk to them about stress and the importance of not worrying about things that aren't fundamentally important.
- Help them make healthy food choices, which includes less sugar and processed foods. Research has shown that if you explain to kids why something is preferable using sound logic, rather than using threats or invoking fear, children will more likely make the healthy choice.
- Ask them to keep a gratitude journal. Or a feelings journal. Both forms of journaling have been found to help emotional fitness.
- If they are withdrawn or anxious, speak to the school counselor about supports for your child.
Improve sleep for school performance
Does getting enough sleep help with school performance? Yes absolutely. The research is clear on this topic and to such a degree that school are now changing the start times for high school so that teenagers get enough sleep. How much sleep does a child need?
Most parents do not realize that the adolescent brain needs 9-10 hours of sleep per night.
Helping your children manage their sleep has gotten harder in recent years now that smart phones are in children's bedrooms. Here are some simple changes to make at home to improve your children's sleep habits. The key factor is that you have to actively make sure they are following through on the behavior changes, so it does require some effort.
Think of it like training a puppy, their behavior needs to be molded in the present moment. And yelling doesn't work.
- No TV or cell phone usage 30 minutes-one hour hour before bed. Reading or drawing, taking a bath or shower. Activities that are relaxing.
- Cell phones and iPads/tablets stay in the kitchen or common area at night.
- Figure out what time they need to be asleep by what time they are getting up. So if they get up at 6:30 AM and we want 9 hours of sleep, then then need to be turning off the light at 9:30.
- Don't start cold turkey. If the child is used to going to bed much later set the bedtime 15 minutes sooner for a few days, then adjust it back another 15 minutes until you get to the desired bedtime. The body needs time to adjust to the new earlier bedtime.
Provide Brain Training for Mental Fitness
Brain training for building focus, concentration and executive functioning skills is growing with school-aged children to give them a competitive edge. There are programs like LearningRx and Luminosity for children to help boost memory, concentration and other cognitive skills.
In 2016, there was a crackdown on the claims these brain training apps and programs were making about their abilities to improve IQ and they have since scaled back their claims. Recent studies, such as with the brain training game, Decoder, have shown that they have some value for focus.
The key to brain training for school performance is to recognize that a holistic approach, looking at the overall performance of the brain is better than narrowly focusing on one aspect, such as improved focus or memorization skills. Here are some recommendations for a well-balanced approach.
- Serve your children foods that help the brain function at its best.
- Have your children learn a musical instrument. It has been shown to bring many benefits, including speech processing. Beyond the value in childhood, studies show that learning an instrument as a child helps ward off dementia as adults.
- Help them develop their visualization skills. Using their imagination to focus helps with memory. Books such as, Moonwalking With Einstein has some great memorization tools.
- Give them weekly or twice weekly neurofeedback sessions. Neurofeedback is cutting edge brain training based on monitoring the brain's electrical communication through EEG sensors. It helps interrupt mental and emotional habits and is used for mental fitness, school and peak performance and to help the brain rebalance emotionally.
- Do a guided body-scan before bed to help them learn to relax and wind-down at the end of the day. Both for the value of learning to de-stess and also to help cultivate good sleep habits.
Helping our children succeed at school goes way beyond their test scores and grades. School performance ideally is one portion of success. And good parenting is helping them learn the tools to be mentally and emotionally fit for life.
Does academic success guarantee career success?
Malcom Gladwell, in one of his well-researched articles for the New Yorker, explored the relationship between college and career success. Specifically he was trying to find out what role college played in success.
He looked at three two factors:
- what college a person attended, and
- what colleges they were accepted into but did not attend,
and correlated those variables with their success later in life. He found that it didn't actually matter what college the person attended, but rather, what college they were accepted into had the strongest connection with later success.
These findings demonstrate that it is the skills, talents and intelligence that the student brought to college that actually made the difference. So if you're wondering if snowplow parenting where children forfeit their own learning but are guaranteed a spot in an Ivy League school will help them succeed in life, it won't.