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Children need space to fail and a varied definition of success, expert says
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Credit: Courtesy St. Anne's-Belfield
Madeline Levine speaks Tuesday at St. Anne's-Belfield.
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Aaron Richardson | Tuesday, November 01, 2016 at 9:49 p.m.

Changing how parents define success could be a key to identifying and solving causes of emotional problems among affluent teenagers, an expert said Tuesday at a presentation at St. Anne’s-Belfield School.

Madeline Levine, a psychologist, researcher, writer and former teacher, works with parents and children in private practice and acts as a consultant for school divisions in the San Francisco Bay area.

Avoiding worrying too much about which specific school a student goes to and making children do more for themselves both will go a long way, Levine said.

“The research is out there about how much difference the school your child goes to makes,” she said. “And … the answer is not much … The reality is, it’s more about the kid.”

According to 2013 research by Arizona State University, rates of depression and anxiety are nearly double the national average for teenagers with household incomes above $160,000 a year.

Changing the definition of success is an important part of lowering those rates, Levine said Tuesday.

That means taking the long view on outcomes. Instead of measuring success by test grades or grade point average, parents should focus on preparing students to be well-adjusted adults.

Levine spoke at St. Anne’s as part of the Inspiration Speaks lecture series that the school hosts several times a year with the goal of promoting conversation.

St. Anne’s-Belfield Head of School David Lourie said Levine’s metric and definition of success matches the school’s philosophy.

“Dr. Levine is an engaging speaker and a leading voice and author with decades of research in child development,” he said. “Her messages regarding allowing children to explore and take risks and to consider each new endeavor either a success or an opportunity to learn [are] something that all parents and educators can heed while undertaking the important work of raising or teaching children and teens.”

As children learn what they are good at and not so good at, it is important for them to see that parents are not all-knowing.

“You ought to let your kids know a little bit about the things you struggle with,” Levine said. “There is little dinner conversation about how adulthood is just a continuation of the things that you struggle with as an adolescent.”

As an example, Levine told the story of an 11-year-old who came into her office with a clear-cut idea that he wanted to be a venture capitalist, and knew every academic and career ladder step he needed to get there.

She then asked for a show of hands of how many adults in the audience picked a career early in life, stuck with the idea and are still in the field that their younger self chose. Roughly 10 people rose their hands.

That is a common result, she said. The straightest, simplest path is rare among her clients and people she speaks to.

“Get to know your kids really, really well, because if you do, you will find out what is really best for them,” she said. “While we all hope that our children will do well in school, we hope with even greater fervor that they will do well in life.”

Parents’ Association President Laurie Ripper Kelly said the message is a healthy challenge for parents.

“Her work with parents and comments during talks with students and the broader community have challenged us yet affirmed much of what we value in this school community,” she said. “She has given everyone a lot to think about in terms of raising emotionally and mentally healthy children, and I am so thankful that the Charlottesville community is engaging on this pertinent issue.”

 

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