Beyond Grades and Trophies, Teaching Kids the Definition of Success

| August 24, 2012 | 13 Comments
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By Amanda Stupi

In her new book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, psychologist and author Madeline Levine exposes the pitfalls of over-parenting, and argues for a new definition of success and achievement.

Levine uses the term “authentic success” to differentiate success as it is traditionally viewed: titles, money, good grades, and prestigious schools. In the forward to her book, Levine writes that parents also need to encourage kids to “know and appreciate themselves deeply; to approach the world with zest; to find work that is exciting and satisfying, friends and spouses who are loving and loyal; and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to society.”

Levine joined host Dave Iverson on KQED’s Forum to discuss her book. Here are some tips that surfaced from the conversation.


According to Levine, research shows that “the four most important factors in parenting are reliability, consistency, stability and non-interference.” She says that most people don’t argue with the first three but that she receives push back on the last one — non-interference. Levine says learning from mistakes (the kind that occur when parents don’t interfere) is an important skill — one that employers say too many young workers lack.


“We’ve all become these decorators as opposed to construction workers. What kids really need is not the right curtains i.e. the right schools, the right grades, but they need a strong foundation. So many parents are busy paying attention to the decorative aspect of their child.”


Research shows that eating dinner with your kids is a good habit to maintain. But many parents over-think it. When asked about eating dinner with her own kids, Levine says “It wasn’t brilliant, deep conversation with three boys every night about how they felt about things, not by a long shot.” What mattered was that she spent time with them.

Levine says to emphasize play time, down time, and family time, or P.D.F.

“It’s in that quiet space that you actually get to know who your child is and that’s your primary job as a parent.” And don’t worry if progess is slow going. Levine says “Getting to know your child is a quiet, long process.”


Levine says that both parents and children need to shift from an external, performance-oriented version of success to an internal version that embraces “real curiosity about learning and how the child experiences things.”

Instead of equating a high grade with effort and intelligence and a low grade with a lack thereof, switch to questions like ‘Did you learn anything new on the test?’ or ‘What was the test like for you?’”

Encourage children “to go inside and evaluate for themselves.” At the end of the day that’s what I think authentic [success] means,” says Levine.


According to Levine, letting kids fail is “one of the most critical things” parents can do. She encourages parents to remember how often toddlers fall when they’re learning to walk.

“That’s the model in life, for how kids master things. If we swooped in at the first stumble, a child wouldn’t learn how to walk. She walks because she fails over and over and over again with our continued encouragement and presence.”


“When you grow up you only have to be really, really good at one or two things. This idea of being good at everything, straight A’s, building water treatment plants in the Sudan and being the captain of the lacrosse team is so unrealistic.”

“We spend so much time with tutors or worrying about a kid who has difficulty in one field as oppose to concentrating on their strengths.”


Levine emphasized that one of the most important things parents can do for their children is to hold back the praise – that’s correct, you shouldn’t constantly tell your children that they are great.

“We seem to be under the impression that you can graft self-esteem onto your children if you just tell them enough how special they are. The reality is that self-esteem comes out of competence. How do you get confident about something? You get better at it.”

Levine explains that telling children they’re good at something builds pressure and expectations and that  the possibility of not meeting those expectations works against kids.

“The risk for the child then becomes very great.”

Listen to the Forum interview here.


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  • LaToniya A. Jones

    This is exactly what kids need and what parents need to hear. In this world of who is the best versus working to help your child develop into their personal best… we as parents often get it all messed up and our kids live to regret that part of childhood and get caught in a spin cycle of trying to fix themselves or in the mindset that they can’t because they haven’t had very positive experiences in the past.

    As an educator and NPO founder, we started a movement to help parents support some of the authentic parts of their children lives through our “I Love My Kids with Math” Campaign. Listening attentively; Observing habits and responses; Valuing the progress made while challenging the validation process; Exploring together through experiences. We believe that while parents aren’t the experts in math their support of being present, listening attentively to who the child is, and using their laser focus to help them to discover their authentic self is often the foundation that is needed to help children thrive in many areas of their lives (academically and socially). This post supports that we are on the right track.

    I remember serving as my eldest son’s teacher and having to let him “bump his head” when he didn’t want to listen to a reminder of an upcoming due date on an assignment. This was definitely one of the hardest things that I had to do as an educator. It was one of the best lessons for my son on listening attentively to all of the details, hints, and working as a team.

    To become confident, they must first become competent with the just the right balance of support from both home and school.

  • Mari

    Excellent article. Parents need to step back and let their kids try to handle their own lives, be there in the background if needed. They’d be surprised at how capable they are.

  • Brimstone

    See: “The Epidemic” by Robert Shaw, M.D.

  • William Medina

    let kids fail is the hardest and the most important of all I believe. Sometimes our children can’t see past things because we are their crutch. We say try and then we help or do it for them. For what ever reason it may be, we decide we don’t want them hurt, or we can’t wait, what ever it is. But children can not learn success with out failure.
    Why, becuase in order to succeed you have to over come obsticales and you must learn from your mistakes. If you can not do this, succees will be hard to find.

  • William Medina

    I agree especially with: spending time with kids and definition of success. I also beleive that a parent should broaden their children scope – find ways to teach them that life is a process and even in failure you find success. I purchased this book I think does very well in teaching this: for Children ‘how to become’ RICH Successful and do well in school.
    One of the points in the book is about learning from mistakes and never giving up. I see it in my own children. No matter how smart they are [ or I beleive they are] when faced with an obsticle or failure it is easy to just surrender. Children need to learn that life is full of problems, challenges and the only way to succeed is to meet them head on and to over come them.

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