Raising Successful Children: Trial and Error?

As parents, we do our best to raise successful children. We have better insight into developmental biology today than in any prior generation. But have we learned from our many mistakes? Here are my thoughts…

A few years ago, I participated in a wonderful conference attended by a group of highly successful entrepreneurs and business leaders. Two different speakers made powerful statements that provide insights to fuel our parenting competence.

A charismatic serial entrepreneur who has built many successful companies introduced himself with provocative self-deprecation. With a twinkle in his eye, he boasted that he had “failed his way to success.” Later in the day, a warm and wise advisor to some of the wealthiest families on the planet shared his experience in helping the super-wealthy prepare their children for the responsibility of their inherited legacies. He urged the audience to “let them fail!” His advice was as jarring for a caring parent as the airline direction to put your own oxygen mask on first—but every bit as true.

Here’s why.

Mother Nature has spent millions of years building and enhancing the human brain. In grossly oversimplified terms, the human brain has three major components. At its center, our primitive brain (also known as our reptilian brain) is designed to ensure our survival. Its currency is fear, and it guides us to fight or flight when we’re faced with danger. Surrounding this primal foundation is our emotional brain. With the emotional brain, Mother Nature gifted early mammals with the ability to nurture their young and collaborate with other adults. The currency of our emotional brain, not surprisingly, is love. Finally, in an act of supreme generosity, she awarded higher mammals (including humans) with a powerful cognitive brain, empowering us with thought and reason. The brain has many other centers with specialized functions, but these three largely govern our actions and reactions.

When we approach a new challenge, we subconsciously seek advice from these three centers. Our brain goes through this internal consultation at lightning speed, but I’ll slow it down for the purpose of explanation.

First, we consult our primitive brain. With grim dedication, it identifies every possible danger inherent to the task and comes back with a long list of reasons why we should not do it. Then we ask our emotional brain for advice, and it responds with suggestions as to how different approaches will make us (and others) feel about our actions. When we get to our cognitive brain, it often pauses for a moment before laying out rational descriptions and explanations for the wide range of approaches we might adopt, assimilating as many facts as possible to inform each alternative. Throughout this process, we send an army of little messengers into the libraries of our brain, searching for memories that might inform our deliberations. Finally, we integrate all of this information into a decision and an action plan.

In an instant, without your conscious awareness, the computer of your mind has tapped into both your own wisdom and the collective experience of your lineage that has been transferred to you through heredity and upbringing.

To be good parents, we need to allow our children the space to practice and perfect this extraordinarily complex task. In the beginning, of course, they’re not at all equipped to do so, and we appropriately make all their decisions for them. But as they (and we) mature, we hopefully withdraw our control, offering merely direction and subsequently suggestion as their competence and experience grow.

Eventually, but not invariably, we stand back, allowing them to do it all on their own.

And they make mistakes! Yes, thank goodness, they make mistakes.

Before you protest, let me hasten to describe the next critical phase in the complex neurological process of decision-making. You see, the mental processing doesn’t stop once we reach a decision. Instead, our brain continues to work hard, observing and documenting our progress, making corrective adjustments as necessary in order to ensure our safety and success. And, as a result, it learns so much more when we make mistakes than when we get it right.

This is the paramount reason that we parents need to stand back, allowing our children to compute risk and reward for themselves. We need to allow them to make bad decisions.

Your child will need to make many mistakes to become a highly successful adult.

Each time we allow our children to fail, we equip them with a flood of data, eagerly stored by their primitive, emotional, and cognitive brains, increasing their computing power exponentially.

Just as important, we need to affirm them in every step of this complex journey, including (and I would say even say especially) when they fail. When we reprimand them for failure or poor decisions, we magnify the negative voice of their reptilian brains, making them either fearful or rebellious as they continue in their journey to adulthood.

Not every parent would agree with one mother’s vigorous approach to learning. She reportedly threw a young Sir Richard Branson out of the car at an early age, expecting him to find his own way home (often from distant and unknown places) with no map or guide. This may sound barbaric to most of us, but it’s hard to argue against the benefits of her method when we see the entrepreneurial genius she produced.

While each of us must find our own balance between guiding and watching, I would suggest that most of us parents take on too many of our children’s challenges for them, denying them growth and retarding their success.

I wish you wisdom and courage as you give your children space to take risks and fail their way to success.

Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings. 

At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.

Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.

To learn more about Roddy and his coaching services, and to follow his blog, visit www.roddycarter.com. You can find his books, BodyWHealth and Sunset Lessons, on Amazon.