High Hopes

The Big Lesson Parents Of High-Achieving Kids Must Teach Again And Again

For kids to reach the top of their ability, they need to be challenged often, fail often, then try again.

Originally Published: 
A dad leaning on his elbow helps his high-achieving son who is writing, working on a school assignme...

When parents and teachers place lofty expectations on kids, the pressure to be perfect can result in a lot of anxiety. That sort of anxiety can mean a drive to avoid failure at all costs can, and, paradoxically, stop children from becoming high-achievers. But there are ways to greatly increase the odds that a child will turn their goals into results.

It’s about emphasizing the right lessons, and one of the main ways is by raising them to have a growth mindset: the belief that someone’s abilities aren’t set in stone. To achieve this, they must learn how to sit with problems and struggle with certain skills so they develop the ability to grow and improve over time. Someone with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, believes that their abilities and level of ability are static and largely won’t change. If they can’t overcome a challenge, they may not even try, because they won’t believe they can.

Former medical doctor and current learning coach Justin Sung credits being raised with a growth mindset for becoming a high-achiever himself — and now coachces students to become high achievers as well. He does so as the head of learning at iCanStudy, a global organization that trains self-regulated higher-order learning skills.

Helping others reach their learning goals is a meaningful endeavor for Sung because of the positive impact mentors had on his own education. “I saved years of self-discovery and discomfort and training because my parents — especially my mother — encouraged a growth mindset in me.”

Drawing from his personal experiences as a high-achiever and his professional experiences coaching others to follow in his footsteps, Fatherly spoke to Sung about what it takes to raise high-achieving kids, the importance of getting kids acquainted with failure, and the big lesson to take away.

At what point is it appropriate to start thinking about cultivating habits that help kids become high-achievers?

Developing a growth mindset should happen from a young age — regardless of whether the child is considered gifted, but especially when they’re gifted.

The child may really care about performing in school, but those are actually going to be expectations that have been placed on that child. It's not something that's going to be innate. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's always a bad thing if we're not teaching the child how to process those expectations and standards externally and internally.

Anecdotally, it seems like a lot of kids who have been tagged “gifted” are also very anxious.

Many gifted children are in cultures, local environments, or family positions that put a lot of pressure on them to grow into their potential. That pressure can create a fixed mindset, insecurity, self-doubt, a lack of confidence, and ultimately low self-esteem in a young adult entering college and the professional workforce.

These are the people that may be excellent at achieving, but they always feel like they're not good enough. They have external validation requirements all the time, their self-esteem is tied to their work, and they’re at a higher risk of mental health issues like depression and anxiety because that pressure that they're placing on themselves is fully internalized.

Is it possible for a parent to be intentional about setting their kid up to be high-achieving while at the same time not projecting expectations onto them?

It's not hard at all to thread that needle. In fact, I think the eye of the needle for that is huge. But you have to look at it in the right way, which starts with the idea that in order to cultivate a growth mindset and cultivate their gifts, a child needs to have an appropriate challenge. Then the process of tackling the challenge, and attempting to overcome it, needs to be positively reinforced.

It seems counterintuitive, because kids get tagged as gifted or high-achievers based on grades or test results.

Gifted doesn’t mean successful, right? Gifted simply means someone has an aptitude. But aptitude only goes so far. And this is the part that a lot of parents get anxious about.

Every human being, in order to engage in that process of self-discovery, exploration, experimentation, and growth, needs to feel safe and secure to experiment and make mistakes. It’s something that's often, in a way, snuffed out of gifted kids, because the pressure and the exact parameters are so high.

Questions like “What was your approach?” or “Why did you choose that approach?” should be used instead of asking questions that focus on the outcome like “What grade did you get?”

I think for the parent, finding the appropriate level of challenge for their kids is the primary task. Especially at earlier ages, it matters even less what the particular subject matter is. The key is developing the ability to look at those challenges and to develop both self-direction and self-regulation — developing the child's ability to understand what they like, what they’re interested in, and the challenges that they enjoy. Then, as they get older, they’ll be better equipped to choose a path that they find meaningful.

What’s a healthy approach parents can take in responding to their kids when they struggle with a particular challenge?

I would break it down into three main parts: challenge, feedback, and positive reinforcement. Feedback should be almost exclusively process-based in that whether they were able to succeed or fail on the challenge is almost irrespective. Questions like “What was your approach?” or “Why did you choose that approach?” should be used instead of asking questions that focus on the outcome like “What grade did you get?”

“How would you rate the way that you tried to tackle this challenge?” or “What do you think you could do next time to face a similar challenge?” are also great questions that engage kids better than results-oriented questions.

What’s an appropriate measure for whether or not a kid is being adequately challenged?

The challenge should be at the level of difficulty where they will definitely fail the first time. We want to normalize the fact that challenges are challenges, because they are difficult. And difficult means they fail.

What's the maximum threshold of failure? Like, at what point is a challenge too hard?

I'm gonna leave that to the parents, because they're going to know their child a lot better. But in general, parents do tend to underestimate that boundary. And as a parent, your impression of what you believe your child can handle in terms of the amount of failure strongly influences how the child thinks about their own threshold.

You want safe failure, but frequent. I recommend parents not to tell the child what's too hard or too difficult. I'll recommend the child to try to figure out what challenge is going to be right for them, give it a go. If they failed the first time, give it a second go. If they’re not making much progress, try downgrading to an easier version, but let the child pick their path.

In order to cultivate a growth mindset and cultivate their gifts, a child needs to have an appropriate challenge.

Between 6 and 8 years old is when it starts becoming possible for a gifted child to have that level of direction. But again, if you're being too deterministic, it takes the play out of it. Some kids that I've worked with, they will have a challenge that they cannot complete for about a year, but they love the process of incrementally figuring it out. That type of mindset is gold. That is the mindset of someone that's almost destined for success.

That's not how our education system works in terms of evaluation or presenting challenges to kids, probably because that's a bit too individualistic to be feasible. Are these approaches that have to be tackled at home by parents?

I’ve seen some examples of schools doing really great things. They are almost always private schools that receive more funding and provide teachers with more support. Even in those situations, I feel that the success is fairly limited. I think that the amount of support and attention that's required is not something that's feasible at scale.

I would strongly encourage parents to take on this as much as possible. Not only is it unrealistic to think that schools can meet student needs in this way, it's also to a degree unfair on the teachers.

Parents might assume that as their kids get older, a key to high achievement is teaching them how to study well. Why do your talks and videos tend to focus on learning as opposed to studying?

The human brain naturally enjoys learning. But often studying and learning are not the same thing. Studying is a monotonous, tedious process that produces very little real learning. So people hate it and can tend to put it off. But then when we look at the process, and we change the process, it starts creating intrinsic motivation, and then suddenly, they no longer procrastinate anymore.

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