Archived Reading Room

Teaching children how to succeed at life

bookNear the end of The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, Dr. Leonard Sax visits Shore, a private school in Sydney, Australia. In a conversation with the headmaster, Dr. Timothy Wright, Sax asks, “What is the purpose of school?”

“Preparation for life,” Wright answers immediately.

Sax then asks, “OK, preparation for life. So what’s the purpose of life?”

Dr. Wright again answered without hesitation. “Meaningful work, a person to love, and a cause to embrace.”

Though he tells us that we needn’t accept Wright’s formula as an answer we “must all accept,” Sax is impressed by the headmaster’s vision. Sax goes on to point out that when a child asks us, “Why should I work hard at school?” that child needs a more comprehensive answer than “I want you to make a good living” or “I want you to go to Harvard.”

The main theme behind The Collapse of Parenting is that a shift has occurred in American culture. We have gone from a parent-oriented culture to a peer-oriented culture. Sax, a family physician and psychologist who has spent his life working with families, children, and teenagers, contends that all too often parents relinquish control of their children by allowing them to make too many of their own decisions at too early an age and by allowing their children’s peers, particularly through social media, to exert a weightier influence than in the past.  

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Combining data and personal experiences, Sax looks at what he labels “the culture of disrespect” among children and teens, and then in a series of chapters raises and examines such questions as “Why Are So Many Kids Overweight?” and “Why Are So Many Kids So Fragile?” (In this latter chapter, I learned a new term. Apparently some faculty and staff at various colleges now refer to today’s students as “teacups — beautiful but liable to break with the slightest drop.”)

Many books examine the problems of parenting, and then offer few, if any, solutions. Not so with The Collapse of Parenting. Sax spends the second half of his book offering advice to parents on how to help their child “to grow up to be a kind person, an honest person.” Here he especially recommends that parents teach their children humility, enjoy the time spent with them, and give them grounding in the meaning of life, none of which has much to do with their academic success.

Sax’s thoughts on humility particularly fascinated me, as I have mentioned this virtue many times to my own children and students. What he writes here is worth repeating. The bold print is a part of the original text:

“Why humility? Because humility has become the most un-American of virtues. And partly for that reason, humility today is the most essential virtue for any kid growing up in the United States. Because so many American parents have confused virtue with success. The only real sin, for many middle-income and affluent parents today, is failure.”

Sax goes on to explain that many of us today lack humility. We think humility means pretending to be humble or denigrating our own talents. But as Sax explains, “humility simply means being as interested in other people as you are in yourself. It means that when you meet new people, you try to learn something about them before going off on a spiel about how incredible your current project is.”

The opposite of humility, Sax tells us, is inflated self-esteem. (Think of the leading contenders in the 2016 presidential race.) Sax points out that inflated egos and high self-esteem are not the same as self-confidence, and can lead to resentment when reality doesn’t match our own opinions of our talents. 


In How To Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare You Kid for Success (Henry Holt and Company, 2015, 355 pages, $27), Julie Lythcott-Haims tackles the subject of “helicopter parents,” those adults who do far too much for their children, particularly as teenagers, so that they go off to work or college unprepared to take care of themselves. We see the results of such parenting in some of today’s universities, where “safe zones” and “trigger warnings” have become all the rage. Like Sax, Lythcott-Haims not only analyzes this problem, but also offers some solutions. 

How To Raise An Adult may seem to offer an opposite point of view from The Collapse Of Parenting, but such is not the case. In How To Raise An Adult, Lythcott-Haims quotes the German poet and philosopher Goethe: “There are two things children should get from their parents: roots and wings.” Sax is chiefly concerned with giving children roots, while Lythcott-Haims focuses on giving them wings. In chapters with such titles as “Teach Them How To Think,” “Prepare Them For Hard Work,” and “Normalize Struggle,” she gives specific and often wise advice about encouraging our young people without smothering them or stealing from them the ability to stand on their own two feet and face the world.

Thumbs up on both these books.

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