How should parents push their kids to excel?
I think about this a lot now because, as a new father, like any parent, I want to give my daughter the best chance to succeed, to find happiness, and to build a great life.
I want her to have every opportunity, both ones I had and ones I didn’t. I’d be so proud if she surpasses me in every way: educationally, financially, socially.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about best parenting practices. How to raise kind and happy kids. How to build courage and resilience. How to develop skill and intelligence and work ethic.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about this last one…in particular the time-old debate of whether helicopter vs. free-range parenting is better.
And I’ve come up with a framework for figuring it out.
Olympics for nerds
Recently, the Scripps National Spelling Bee (the Olympics for nerds) made headlines because it tied 8 contestants as winner. That’s a first. Usually there’s one winner; rarely, a two-way tie.
This year, it was an 8-way tie (video).
Eight kids actually beat the dictionary.
The winning words:
What kind of parenting produces results like this?
This year, three winners are friends from Dallas. Just one city! It’s so crazy some families even move to Dallas because they want to give their kids better training and exposure to spelling competitions.
These kids have little free time outside of vocab studying. They study 4-5 hours a day, double on weekends, up to 18-24 months before the nationals.
Of course, I’m sure their parents instilled in them a strong foundation in language, reading, good study habits, etc, long before the competitions.
But still, how do you motivate kids so young to be so disciplined to train 20-30 hours a week for something so academic? Is it even healthy?
One thing for certain is the payoff. Winning something like the Scripps carries real, lifelong benefits.
Most obviously, an impressive college app credential + prize money ($50k).
More lasting is the advanced language skills that will help these kids accelerate and compound their learning in the coming years.
All learning is, at some level, about absorbing concepts through language. These kids literally know what all the words mean, so hard words that slow other kids down won’t impede them. They don’t have to look anything up!
That means they’ll literally learn faster. This investment in language learning will snowball and pay compound dividends for life.
SAT I and II verbal? Forget about it. Aced.
But most importantly, these kids know discipline. They know how to do hard things. They know pressure. They know extreme focus. And they know how it produces extraordinary results.
This mindset extends to everything in life: starting a successful business, succeeding in a traditional career path, or achieving excellence in any field.
I won’t be surprised if every winning kid attends a top 5 university. Which in turn only increases the chances of high achievement, prestigious grad schools, job opportunities, etc.
Sure, none of that is guaranteed. Success is just as much about luck and timing as about hard work.
But it’s hard to be successful without hard work, and these kids have proven they’re very capable of it.
I’d bet on kids like this because their probability of success is WAY higher than average.
Parents benefit, too
Meanwhile, their parents enjoy greater assurance their kid will excel in life. Academics isn’t the only predictor of success, but it’s a critical one and these parents have that much less to worry about.
And bonus: if their kid becomes rich and successful, they’ll be better able to look after the parents in old age, to boot!
But what about the downsides?
Yes, there are a few.
First, there’s something to be said for having plenty of unstructured free time as a kid…to just be a kid.
Even if large portions of childhood are spent splashing in creeks catching tadpoles in summers, that creates fond memories to look back on. And isn’t that important?
Drilling in Olympic-level academics from such a young age means sacrificing a big chunk of youth.
Moreover, sitting in front of a computer flipping flash cards all day can also lead to growing up socially awkward, unbalanced, even lonely.
Not a guarantee, of course, but definitely a risk. Parents have to be mindful of this.
But most importantly, not all learning is acquired through books. In fact, only specific types of learning can be acquired that way. A hugely important aspect of learning – about people – cannot be gained through any other means than by interacting with lots of people.
Kids learn from people interactions early. Even if you’re just playing ball with the neighborhood kids, it teaches you about teamwork, influencing people, even leadership.
That may sound like a stretch, but any kid trying to coordinate a bunch of other rowdy kids playing ball will definitely learn a thing or two about how to deal with people.
Hard to get that from books.
That’s one reason why I’ll urge my daughter to work a waitressing or customer service job when she’s young. She’ll learn how to deal with all kinds of people, how to communicate in a way the customer wants to hear, how to handle bad behavior, bad personalities, etc.
Learning about human nature through repeated interactions will only make her better and more capable and more resilient.
A framework for clarifying your parenting values
The world is getting ever more competitive. I believe it’s way more competitive for a student to stand out now vs. when I was in school.
Is it better to shield kids from these pressures when they’re young and let ‘em run free, or start training ‘em early to help them build strength and endurance from a young age?
To me, this is essentially what the free-range vs. helicopter parenting debate is about.
There’s no objective right or wrong, but having a framework to decide what’s best for your kid is critical.
1. Does your child have the mindset for intensive training? Especially the kind that culminates in a single event where winners and losers are declared.
Is that pressure something you and your child can endure? Will your child be distraught and discouraged if they lose…even though luck may play a big role? Would losing negatively impact their life perspective in a way that overshadows the benefits of intensive training?
Similarly, if they win, will they have the maturity to not let it get to their head? To stay grounded and humble?
Life ultimately does involve some important competitions, whether it’s national spelling bees or college admissions, career opportunities, promotions, etc.
Even though the true lesson is “the race is really against yourself,” it still takes a particular mindset to internalize that at such a young age and to not let the results, good or bad, define you.
2. Does your child show early evidence of promise? Good results come from hard work. But extraordinary results come from hard work + ability/talent.
Maybe your kid has an uncanny ability to see/hear something once and then just grasp it. Or maybe they stumble upon a talent very early in life, like Bill Gates did with computers or Warren Buffet with investing.
Whatever it is, ask yourself whether your kid shows evidence of real promise (be honest). Do they show clear signs of potentially achieving something really special?
A crude signal: Do acquaintances in your circle gossip about what they’ve heard of your kid’s talents? Do folks often curiously ask you about it?
3. Is the opportunity cost worth it? Olympic level training requires real sacrifice. Hard things always do. The first thing to go will be unstructured free time to just be a kid.
One way to clarify your view on this is to say out loud what the worst case outcome is.
Maybe it’s: “I am convinced the sacrifice of such training means my child’s social skills, personality development, etc, have a high chance of turning out badly.”
If you believe the downside is clearer and more certain than any upside, then the opportunity cost probably isn’t worth it for you.
By contrast, you might say: “Gee, when I think about it, I’m not actually sure how missing a few hours of free time a day for a couple years actually hurts my kid’s social skills / creativity / etc. But I believe the knowledge and discipline benefits they’ll get are real.”
In such case, the tradeoff might be worth it.
Your anxiousness level on this is an important signal. Making sure your convictions on this withstand the peer pressure of what other parents may be doing for their kids is critical to doing right by your kid.
4. Can your child internalize the benefit of the journey over the outcome? Whatever the prize, even if your kid doesn’t ultimately win, the benefits of the journey/process still belong to them. For good.
That is the hardest part about extreme training: focusing your kid on the prize AND instilling in them not to focus on it so much they lose sight of the bigger picture and let it define their sense of self.
The real benefit is the journey itself.
Winning the final competition is just the cherry on top (although it’s hard to internalize that in the moment).
In the case of the Scripps, this quote stuck with me: “At the end of the day, these kids are not competing against each other…they are just competing against the dictionary.”
That’s really the point.
The advanced language skills, discipline, hard work, grace under pressure, extreme focus – ALL the spelling finalists acquired those, including the ones who lost.
However, most kids are not mature enough to see the world this way at such a young age.
External validation is more important because they don’t have enough life perspective to know how the other benefits beyond the trophy prize will actually matter more in the long run.
That is where you as a parent are critical in guiding them.
Because end of day, what you really want is for your kid to develop independence, self-confidence, and self-motivated learning.
Spelling bee winners: then and now
Earlier I said I’d bet on these kids because their probability of success is way higher than average.
You might be curious to know where some past Scripps winners are now.
Academically they have flourished: Ivy League universities, Stanford, MIT, etc. Intel science fair finalists, Jeopardy winners, International Math Olympiad, National Merit Scholars, U.S. Presidential Scholars, etc.
In terms of careers, here is a sampling:
- Doctor and professor at the University of California, San Francisco
- Doctor and professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City
- Neonatology specialist and professor at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School
- Doctor in internal medicine, hospice and palliative care, and sports medicine
- Pulitzer prize winning journalist
- Harvard educated lawyer for the ACLU
- Healthcare investment banker in San Francisco
- Professional poker player ($6M in winnings)
- Head of Product & Technology at a software company
- Private equity investor in San Francisco
- Chief operating officer at an investment management firm
- Software engineer and voice actor
- Professor of classics
- Public school teacher
- Stay at home mom
On the whole, a very accomplished group.
Even the stay at home moms who decided to leave promising careers in finance, biotech, etc.
Career outcomes like these are a function of long years of hard work and discipline.
Wealth hacking isn’t only about the money in your bank account. It’s also about career and life fulfillment.
Parents are critical in opening up the aspiration/opportunity set as wide as possible for their kids.
While there probably is no objective right or wrong answer to the free-range vs. helicopter parenting debate, your kid’s readiness, independence, self-confidence, and self-motivation are most heavily influenced by you as a parent in the early years.
It’s up to you to give your kids the right tools and encouragement – and perspective – to maximize their future success and opportunities.
Discussion: Do you believe free-range parenting or helicopter parenting is better? Why? What do you think are the most important things a parent can do to help their kids excel and find success in life? Leave a comment below!