How to help your kids avoid these common pitfalls

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As summer begins to wind down, and the first day of school beckons in the near future, parents are purchasing clothes, notebooks and backpacks for the new school year.

But there are other important ways to prepare your child to return to school.

“There are several common pitfalls that can affect our kids deeply and quite easily,” says Malcolm Gauld, president of Hyde Schools and co-author, with his wife Laura, of the parenting book “The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have.” “These pitfalls may be detrimental long-term, but they can also be avoided when emphasized and discussed openly.”

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HELPING HAND—Transitioning into the new school year can be difficult, but with some parental support you can keep your kids from falling.

According to the Gaulds, these pitfalls include:

1. Winning at any cost.

“Our culture has become preoccupied with achievement,” Laura Gauld says, referring to the increasing educational focus on grades, test scores and awards in our public schools. “These scores are external indicators that name winners at school at an early age. Kids know we have created an educational system that values their ability over their character. They are surrounded by signs that tell them that what they can DO is more important than who they ARE.”

“As a result, today’s kids are under tremendous pressure,” says Malcolm, “and that pressure leads many children to cheat.”

According to a recent study by the Josephson Institute, sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year and 38 percent did so two or more times, up from 60 percent and 35 percent in a 2006 survey. Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33 percent in 2004.

Further, the study demonstrates that cheating is common among most types of students—boys, girls, athletes, smart kids, student leaders, even those with “strong religious beliefs.”

“We all want our kids to succeed,” says Laura. “However, parents need to make it clear that there are serious ramifications to ‘winning at any cost,’ including lack of character as well as lack of self-esteem.”

“Kids know when they have not earned their standing honorably,” Laura continues. “And it takes a major toll on their ability to develop confidence in life.”

According to the Gaulds, an environment that values only achievement can make it extremely easy for test scores and awards to lure good kids into a false sense of fulfillment.

“But this is not the genuine self-esteem that is earned through a learning process that includes mistakes and some hardship,” says Malcolm “In the end it can leave kids feeling empty.”

The Gaulds feel that the development of authentic self-esteem—and the greatest chance of true and meaningful success in life— rests on a foundation of principles and knowing that you have done your best with honest efforts.

Their advice to parents:

Communicate your values clearly to your children. What are your principles, as parents? What do you believe is right? Become familiar with your own beliefs, clarify them, and learn to communicate them to your child. If you as a parent have fallen off-track and are disconnected from what is good and right in life, find people and activities that can help you reconnect with solid principles.

“Parents of good kids tend to think they don’t need to say anything, but your children need to hear what you believe, loud and clear. Let them know what you believe, what you expect of them, and what you hope for them. In the end, what they will have is the choices they make. Their choices will define who they are, just as yours have.”

Share the value of a challenge. Help children realize that struggle, challenge and some failure are expected in life— even helpful.

“Parents know that some of our greatest lessons in life have come from our failures,” says Malcolm. “We want to shield our kids from failure. But some failure is necessary for personal growth and healthy development.”

Model daily character for your kids:

Generally, a parent is the first person a child sees after waking up in the morning and the last person before falling asleep, so know that you as the parent hold center stage in your child’s life. Your actions and words during those fleeting moments will have a lifelong impact on your child’s sense of right and wrong.

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” says Malcolm. “If you say you believe in honest efforts and then wince when your child gets a B, your child will know exactly where you stand. Support your child in their honest efforts.”

Another pitfall parents and their children can fall into is related to the first:

2. Overlooking What’s Really Going On

If parents also continue to use grades, the number of friends, sports awards, etc., as their gauge for determining the true state of their children’s character and emotional well being, they may never see the underlying truth of their child’s daily life and moral acumen.

Often parents look at their children’s achievements and think, ‘She’s doing very well. She’s getting all As, is a very accomplished athlete, and does amazing work with her art. She obviously doesn’t need help.’ “It takes a high level of awareness and fortitude,” Laura explains, “but parents need to look deeper too, beyond the report cards and external achievements they’re proud of, to discern what their kids are actually doing and feeling.”

To help parents stay on track, the Gaulds offer some simple tips:

a. Talk to your child about what’s happening. Look beneath the surface—for example, stress, fears, attitude, relationships, anxiety, sexuality, friends, teachers. These are concerns and challenges that will not appear on a report card, and they are important aspects and triggers in your child’s life.

b. Don’t wait for an overt problem.

“Sometimes, parents’ participation can be startled into action by a child’s sudden misdeed—for example, an honor student who is caught stealing,” says Laura.

Don’t wait for something to “happen” in your child’s life—something overt, mor­ally wrong, unacceptable social behavior—to discuss moral choices, principles, and what kind of person your child is supposed to become.

“Do not assume that because your child is getting straight As that there is no need for your clear, direct parenting efforts and support,” Laura says. “Your children always need parenting.”

(For more information on the Gaulds, “The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have” book, contact Mark Murrell at 312-315-6011 or 312-955-8128, by e-mail at mark@markinteractive; visit greatparenting101.com and hyde.edu.)

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