How to Be a Powerful Ally for Your Children

Written by Dr. Joel Wade

“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s”
–Joseph Campbell

Since the dawn of time, parents have wanted the best for their kids. They are our link to the future beyond our own time here on earth. But more importantly, we feel a connection with our kids, a visceral bond. When they’re happy, we feel delight; when they hurt, we feel pain. When they succeed, we feel proud; when they fail, we feel the loss.

It’s natural to want good things for our kids. We want them to grow into strong, good people; we want them to have work they love that enables them to live well; we want them to find good friends and a wonderful mate with whom they can grow a wonderful, loving life. We want them to succeed.

There’s an expression of this natural sentiment, though, growing across a larger spectrum of our population, and it troubles me.

There are certain colleges that are supposedly the doorway to success, and those colleges are very difficult to get into; not necessarily because they provide the best preparation, but simply because so very many people are vying for so few openings.

…then there are certain High Schools that are the doorway to getting into those colleges; certain Jr. High Schools and Elementary Schools that are the doorway to those High Schools. There are even places where there are top pre-schools and kindergartens that you must attend if you are going to get into the top elementary school.

On one level, that’s understandable – competition motivates people to do their best, and we want our kids to get a good education, and to be prepared for success. On the other hand, by putting all this pressure on young kids in this certain direction, it puts the focus on a fairly rigid external standard, and can draw them away from what they genuinely love and aspire to, and from their own unique path to success.

This popular obsession creates a very small window through which only a few can pass, while multitudes are faced with a sense of failure that is not merited by the challenge.

The intense pressure and expectations that are being placed on kids to follow a certain path: excel in school, get straight “A”s, get near perfect SAT scores, engage in extracurricular activities for the express purpose of pleasing and impressing the admissions department of Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, etc. has an all or nothing, perfectionist quality to it.

Go through this labyrinth of intense scrutiny and graduate from an Ivy League school… then you’ll be happy and successful. If you don’t, then you’re a failure… and you’ll have to make do with some second rate life.

I’ve talked with parents who are freaking out because their 5 year old isn’t measuring up, or their 10 year old might not be able to get into the top preparatory Jr. High School.

It’s not that these parents see certain talents in their kids, and support them to do their best and to flourish. It’s different than that. These people are scared. And they’re working like crazy to be able to afford and groom their little ones for this particular path… and they’re also afraid that their little ones won’t measure up.

This is not about flourishing, or living a happy, successful life; it’s obsessing about getting into a club.

This is not the mindset that has characterized most of America for most of her existence. America was founded by brilliant and very well educated folks, in part. But she was also founded by self-taught geniuses like Benjamin Franklin, and self-formed men like George Washington.

We are a culture of pioneers, and the ethic of self-reliance and rugged individualism that have forged our national culture are granite pillars of a great country.

The idea that there is but one path to success, I believe, reflects the growing power of our more greatly centralized government. The road to great success increasingly runs through Washington, DC, whose surrounding communities are now among the most wealthy in the U.S.; and that is not a positive development.

The truth is, we are all much more different from one another than we think. Our internal experience, which includes our deepest loves, joys, dreams, is not like anyone else’s. If my calling is to excel through school and graduate from Harvard, that’s wonderful, and I can use all the support and challenges that will get me there; but if it’s not, then trying to force that path will only serve to distract me from what may be a true calling.

Building a life is a creative process, from the inside out, and it is often much more of a meandering path than we expect… even with a diploma from Columbia.

Ronald Reagan graduated from Eureka College in Illinois. Harry Truman never attended college at all. Had I been a student of the classics, I would have learned more from Victor Davis Hanson’s program at Fresno State than from any Ivy League program.

If there’s one point that I want to get across here to parents, grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and anyone else who cares for, teaches, or encourages kids, It is… relax.

Love your kids, enjoy your kids, encourage your kids to do their very best. Hold high expectations for them personally, but in doing this, pay attention to who they are, not what you, or anyone else, wants them to be.

In doing so, you will support them to be who they are; you will see the best in them, and you will become their greatest champion. The draw to get through the labyrinth of elite schooling is only a cultural dance; it’s a fashion, like getting the coolest tennis shoes, or the latest iphone.

What matters are not the steps of this particular cultural dance; what matters is that we learn to move with grace and style, to live with integrity and dignity. What matters is that we live from the best of who we are.

That’s not something, frankly, that we often learn in college. It’s something we can be inspired to strive for, and we can find that inspiration anywhere – from a loving parent to a dedicated coach… or sometimes a devoted professor. We can find that inspiration at our first job, or building a fence with our dad. That inspiration can find deep roots when we have our own children, or commit deeply to a meaningful path.

A life of success, integrity, grace, and dignity is not something we are gifted with through following any rote path – even a very high powered one. It’s something that we build for ourselves.

Living well, with all that this means, takes consciousness, courage and devotion, and it also takes allies; people who see the best in us, and who help us live from our deepest and best selves. If you want to truly enhance the lives of your kids – or anyone you love, for that matter – be that ally.

About the Author

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and Life Coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website,

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