Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Encouraging Children: My Mentor John Rosemond Got It Wrong This Time

I've been a fan of parenting expert and psychologist John Rosemond for more than 10 years. His books were a beacon of reason and practical parenting for me, especially, Teen-Proofing: Fostering Responsible Decision Making in Your Teenager, during my daughter's pre-teen and early teen years.

But when I read his recent column Living with Children in the Sunday paper, I found myself saying, "No, no, John, you've got it wrong this time."

He argues that parents should not encourage their children to believe that they can be anything they want. His reason: "Enlightened parents seem to believe telling children fictions of this sort is one of the obligations of a truly caring parent. As a consequence of this lack of guidance and leadership, increasing numbers of young people in their lates 20s still haven't discovered their Inner Wannabe." He then cites examples of young adults who seem clueless about what they want to do with their lives and how they can add value to others.

I do agree that increasing numbers of young people seem to struggle with finding purpose, but I don't think we can lay the blame simply on parents telling their kids their options in life are limitless. I believe the underlying issues are deeper, specifically two misguided actions that some parents take, contributing to the lack of direction, focus and ambition in a lot of today's young people.

#1. They do too much for their children. One of the most important responsibilities parents have is to prepare their kids for adult life. That includes teaching them how to be responsible. I've heard more than one parent use these words: "We have a science project due next week." The use of "we" sends the message that the parent feels partly responsible for making sure this project gets done or even helping the child do it. The idea of letting the child do this alone, even if it doesn't turn out well, seems foreign to them.

Every time we do for our children something they can and should learn to do for themselves, we rob them of the opportunity to learn personal responsibility and to grow. This principle holds true for leaders in organizations. You don't help a child or an adult become self-reliant by doing things for them or micro-managing. In fact, these actions convey the opposite message: "I don't believe you're capable of doing this yourself, so I'm going to do it for you," OR "I'm going to watch you closely to make sure you do it right." 

This approach breeds insecurity, lack of confidence and dependence - traits that will not help anyone become a healthy, fully-functioning adult.

#2. They give their children too much instead of requiring them to work for and earn the things they want. The result is in an entitlement mentality that carries over into adult life, where people expect the government, their employer, or their parents to take care of them.

If we have something handed to us, we don't appreciate it in the same way as when we have to work for it. When our daughter Alison was young, she often tossed her clothes on the floor after she took them off, instead of hanging them up. When she started buying her own clothes, we noticed she took a lot better care of them. A simple example, but this attitude carries over into every aspect of life.

So what should parents say to encourage their children - or leaders to encourage their team members - about what's possible in life? How about this:

"You can be practically anything you want in life,   
if you prepare yourself for it   
and are willing to pay the price to get it."

This way, you convey that there's no "free ticket." You have to pay your dues if you want to achieve greatness. You have to earn what you get and not expect someone else give it to you. You need to set ambitious goals and then do whatever it takes to reach them.

As a small business owner who's hired many people over the years, I can tell you that I treasure those who demonstrate initiative, want to learn, make a difference, and look for ways to help our business grow - not just get a paycheck. When I encounter these types of individuals, I silently thank their parents for having the wisdom to prepare them to be true contributors in the world.


  1. Meredith,

    I tried to mail you a comment through Twitter, only to find you don't follow me. (drdebraholland)

    Anyway, I wanted you to know that this is an EXCELLENT blog! Well written and important content. I totally agree with you and think John's message in this area is sad and limiting.

    I will give the blog link to my clients who are parents, and I have sent it on, so hopefully more people will be reading it.

  2. Debra, I appreciate your positive feedback! When I checked Twitter, it shows I am following you so I'm not sure why there was a glitch. I appreciate your sharing this post with others you know. I believe it conveys an important message that parents and leaders alike need to read.

  3. Hi Meredith
    I totaly agree with you and it confirms that I'm following the right approach with my children, although it's not always easy.


  4. Hi Meredith
    I totaly agree with you and it confirms that I'm following the right approach with my children, although it's not always easy.


  5. Great post! So true...

    The irony is that much of this wrong-headed parenting comes from LOVE! They love their kids, so they do for them, give them everything, tell them anything is possible without helping them learn what the real world is like. IT'S CRIPPLING.

    What parents want most for their kids is for them to be happy. But they will never be happy if they struggle to deal with the challenges of real life in the adult world.

    Besides unconditional love, the greatest thing a parent can give to a child is the chance to strive. Kid challenges for kids. Teen challenges for teens. Team sports is great for this. Jobs are, too. Help them ingrain personal strength behavior patterns while young, so they'll have them when they're adults.

  6. It is great to encourage children to be all that they can be... as long as you are honest with them about what is actually realistic.

    Shaquille O'Neall could not be the world's greatest jockey no matter how hard he would try to achieve that dream. Tempering encouragement with realism is being honest.


  7. This is a great post Meredith and one that I couldn't agree with more.
    While it is not for us to build walls for our children and drive out their dreams and ambitions, it is our responsibility as parents to ensure that they have the values, discipline and work ethic that allows them to make good choices for themselves and be responsible for them no matter the outcome.

  8. Linky, I'm glad you found that helpful, and you're right about it not being easy. Just remember that being a parent is not a popularity contest, and there are times your kids won't like what you do - and that is OK! They will thank you when they're older (our 25 year-old daughter is now most appreciative of how she was raised). Persevere!

    Denny, good points. Sometimes what is claimed to be LOVE is really a need to be LIKED by the child. I've seen this many times. I agree that parents need to find avenues for preparing their kids for adult life through activities like sports.

    Shari, I appreciate your point about being honest with your children if there is something totally outside the realm of possibility. But too many times, parents discourage their children due to their own limited view of what's possible.

    Gwyn, Thanks for your feedback and I like your additional points about what parents needs to do to ensure their children grow into responsible adults.

  9. In my outstanding book (if I do say so myself and I do) "The 40 Book: Forty Things You Should Know By Forty" I have a chapter that says: You can do anything you want...if you are competent, well prepared and pursue it tirelessly.

  10. David, thanks for stopping by and making me aware of your book. I agree with your three requirements for doing anything you want!

  11. Hi Meredith,

    Thank you for the lovely post. As a parent myself, I couldn't agree more with what you say. I think the best we can do for our children is, to help them set goals grounded in reality. Like Shari said, "Shaquille O'Neall could not be the world's greatest jockey no matter how hard he would try to achieve that dream. Tempering encouragement with realism is being honest."

  12. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your insights, wordwhacky. I agree that setting goals grounded in reality are important to a child's future success as an adult.

  13. Hi Meredith

    I like the jest of your article. I don't like to tell children they can do anything they want for a different reason.

    It simply is not true. Our will and opportunities limit us.

    I do believe in telling kids they can be as successful, but they have to want success enough to work hard for it.

    I also believe in telling kids; there is only one valid reason for doing your best. You do your best for the same reason I do. It is the right thing to do.

    Here are two more thoughts I pass on to kids:

    Life is full of trouble, so you might as well get into trouble for doing the right thing, at least that way you can have a clear conscience.

    Always want for the other person what you want for yourself.

  14. Alex, I appreciate your taking time to give such a thoughtful reply to the points in my post and add your own valuable insights. All good things to pass on to kids!

  15. Kids need to narrow their options and their focus. They need to know their strengths in abilities, interests and opportunities and then focus on those.

    Abilities and interests and opportunities are not equal for everyone. It is harmful to pretend that they are.

    Still, there is a place for dreaming up goals and pursuing them. The pursuit may get re-directed and it may also take you further than you even imagined.

  16. This is a tough topic.

    At first, I agreed with both you and Dr. Rosemond, even though my story contradicts what is written here.

    My parents gave their three children the moon, walked through fire for us and encouraged us to believe we could be whatever we wanted to be. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but so far everything is okay.

    Today, we are all artists who work independently. I am gainfully employed as a full-time freelance writer (at age 26). My sister (29) produces music festivals. And my brother (24) sells artwork on Etsy for upwards of $250 a piece.

    Reflecting on this makes me wonder, what sets my parents apart from others who do and give "too much" for their children?

    My parents are hard workers who rarely talk about retirement - even though they are in their 60s and have the means to retire today. For as long as I can remember, they have both been passionate about their work. They incorporated us into their careers at young ages, too. We went to work with them often and were always invited to celebrate their successes and the successes of their coworkers.

    I think the secret to encouraging children is behaving like the person who you want your child to become. Know your purpose, follow your dreams, and create a strong professional support system. When children see this exemplified, I wonder if they feel especially encouraged to carve out a meaningful career they are passionate about.

  17. Courtney, thank you for that very thoughtful reply. There's much wisdom in what you articulated so beautifully.

    I agree that being the kind of person you'd like your children to become is exactly the right first step. I bet you also absorbed from your parents a consistent message - whether verbalized or not - about the type of behavior they expected to see in you. And they gave each of their children the freedom to choose their own path.

    Congratulations on the successes you've experienced in life so far. You are clearly making a difference for others and I imagine your openness and authenticity attracts like-minded people to you.


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