We all want to lead happy, successful lives. But for parents, there’s a time when your priorities shift a bit, and your most important goals start to involve setting your kids up for success and happiness in their own lives.
Parental priorities aren’t the only factor, of course. There are plenty of stories out there about people who defied the odds and achieved great success despite their parents’ involvement, not because of it.
Still, scientists and researchers have made a lot of progress studying what the parents of the larger share of successful people have in common. Here are 10 of the most important things those parents do, which I found while compiling my free e-book, How to Raise Successful Kids.
1. They move to the best neighborhood they can afford.
Moving can be expensive and disruptive. But parents who want to give their kids a leg up and set them on the road to success will uproot their lives if necessary. The No. 1 thing they can do is to move to a location with good schools, great opportunities, and the chance to grow up with more privileged peers.
This advice is controversial, but it’s effective. It’s why parents in developing countries try to immigrate to wealthier nations, and it’s the thinking behind the advice to “buy the cheapest house you can find in the best neighborhood.”
“Buying a neighborhood is probably one of the most important things you can do for your kid,” explains Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, who studied how wealthy people use their means to improve their kids’ lives effectively.
2. They model and encourage good relationships.
Since 1938, researchers at Harvard University have been studying the choices and experiences of a group of 400 men, all of them students at Harvard.
The project is called the Grant Study, and the group of subjects included President John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, who later became editor of The Washington Post during Watergate.
After seven-plus decades of surveys, questions, analysis, and study, what’s the single thing they came up with that leads to health and happiness? Dr. Robert Waldinger, who had been running the Grant Study since 2003 put it succinctly:
The lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
So what do parents of successful kids do, armed with that knowledge? It’s simple to say and hard to execute: They model good relationships with friends and family, and they encourage their children to nurture their relationships, too.
3. They praise their children the right way.
Parents of successful kids learn to praise in a way that encourages positive lifelong habits. This means praising children for the strategies and processes they use to solve problems, rather than praising them for their innate abilities.
Having come upon the research of Stanford’s Carol Dweck on this topic, I find myself following this advice with my daughter. A few simple examples:
Don’t praise a child for getting a high grade on a test; praise her for the studying she did, which led to the result.
Don’t praise for winning a race or a game; instead, offer praise for all the sweat she put in during practice—again, which led to the result.
Don’t say, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re such a talented singer!” Instead, you want to find a way to say things like, “You did a great job figuring out that problem,” or, “You sound so great—all those hours of practice paid off!”
The goal is always to encourage kids to develop a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. As an example, Dweck suggests thinking of Albert Einstein. If you think, “Einstein was brilliant,” that would reflect a fixed mindset; observing instead that Einstein figured out how to solve some very difficult problems would reflect a growth mindset.
4. They encourage them to do scut work.
My boss was telling me the other day about a t-shirt that read, “I Got a B+ on My Daughter’s School Project.”
It’s funny, but it’s the wrong thing to be doing. A couple of years ago, Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and the author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, said one of the best pieces of advice she had for parents was to make their kids do chores—and never do their homework for them!
“Teach them the skills they’ll need in real life, and give them enough leash to practice those skills on their own,” said Lythcott-Haims, who based her conclusions on the Harvard Grant Study (from No. 2, above). “Chores build a sense of accountability.”
5. They ensure their kids know they will always support them.
Don’t worry, we don’t mean that you’ll always support them financially! Instead, this is about one of the hottest debates in parenting circles: whether parents should encourage their kids to “suck it up” when they are hurt or suffer setbacks, or instead “run to their side.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the science supports the “run to their side” style of parenting. It’s about responding supportively—while not solving all your kids’ problems for them.
“Parents who respond to their children’s emotions in a comforting manner have kids who are more socially well-adjusted than do parents who either tell their kids they are overreacting or who punish their kids for getting upset,” child psychologist Nancy Eisenberg of Arizona State University said in an interview.
6. They help them to become resilient.
Resilience, defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness,” is an underpinning of success. It’s what allows people to, as Sir Winston Churchill put it, “go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
And that undaunted attitude is what allows them to work through problems without fear of coming up short—exactly the behavior that the “praise for the effort” tactic that Dweck advises is designed to develop.
So how do you help kids to develop resiliency? Set an example, trust your children to solve many of their own problems, and encourage risk-taking while also asserting your authority as a parent when it’s sensible, advises former Navy SEAL commander (and now Missouri governor) Eric Greitens.
7. They advocate for them at school.
This next bit of science-backed advice requires some judgment. On the one hand, it’s important to let kids solve their own problems when possible. On the other hand, your job as a parent requires you to act like an authority figure and a determined advocate.
Nowhere is this more true than in the schools. A 45-year longevity study called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth found that schools often ignore the most talented students, in favor of trying to increase the performance of more average pupils.
This all comes from a misguided belief that gifted students will achieve on their own—even in spite of a strict educational system that doesn’t serve them well. Unfortunately, it’s a huge societal mistake. The only real antidote is parental involvement and advocacy.
8. They remind them (ahem) of their high expectations for them.
Of all the research on parenting, this one seems to prompt the most polarized responses.
Researchers at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom found that parents who set super-high expectations for their teenage daughters—and who constantly reminded them of those expectations—had daughters who were less likely to become pregnant, drop out of school, or wind up in lousy, low-wage jobs.
Although the study focused specifically on girls, it didn’t exclude the likelihood that such high-tempo reminders would have a similar positive effect for boys.
9. They hope that they marry the right person.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote recently:
I have had more than a little bit of luck in life, but nothing equals in magnitude my marriage to Martin D. Ginsburg. I betray no secret in reporting that, without him, I would not have gained a seat on the Supreme Court.
Science backs her up. As my colleague Jeff Haden has written, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that marrying the right person leads people to “perform better at work, earning more promotions, making more money, and feeling more satisfied with their jobs.”
Unless you’re living in a society with arranged marriages, however, this is much more about your children’s choices than anything you can do for them as a parent. Still, you can do your best to model a good marriage relationship and simply make sure they understand that the choice of who to spend your life with is probably the most important choice most people make.
10. They encourage them to act like entrepreneurs (and maybe become rich).
This one a bonus, as it’s based on my own research. While we know that money is not the key to happiness, a lack of money can certainly sometimes lead to misery. We all know people who are less successful than they’d otherwise be because they spend their entire lives chasing enough money to live.
They have to make long-term decisions based on short-term financial considerations.
So how do you help your children to grow up to avoid this trap? Financial literacy is important, but so is encouraging them to act entrepreneurially. A few months ago, I asked 118 successful entrepreneurs if they could point to a habit or an experience that was responsible for their success?
A whopping 110 out of the 118—93 percent!—said the answer was simple: It was that they’d been encouraged to act like entrepreneurs and had gotten started when they were still young.