The pressure for students to get good grades and to participate in the ‘right’ sports and clubs so they can get into the ‘right’ universities, starts early in many cultures around the world. In the U.S., tweens and teens are increasingly reporting feeling stressed out. According to a 2019 “Washington Post” article, 75% of high schoolers and 50% of middle schoolers described themselves as “often or always feeling stressed” by schoolwork.

The irony is, stress can hurt academic performance. Left unchecked, it can lead to anxiety and depression, which, in turn, can lead to social and behavioral problems.

It’s a dilemma YPO member Daniel Koffler, President of New Frontiers, an executive functioning coaching organization, sees regularly in his line of work, as well as the parent of three young children.

Just because your children don’t achieve a certain milestone when you expect them to, it doesn’t mean they won’t achieve it later or achieve it in their own way. ”
— Daniel Koffler, President of New Frontiers share twitter

“I know people who think that if you don’t go to the right private preschool, you won’t go to the right private K-12,” Koffler explains. “They think you need to do that to get through that very narrow needle eye into the right college, which is going to dictate how well you do in life.”

Except, he says, that’s not how it works in the real world. Koffler says one of the best things parents can do to help their children be successful in life — and to lower their stress levels — is to define success on their own terms and reflecting their own values.

“I tell parents to recognize there is a range of outcomes, and to be OK with that,” says Koffler. “Just because your children don’t achieve a certain milestone when you expect them to, it doesn’t mean they won’t achieve it later or achieve it in their own way.”

He also scoffs at the idea that success means being singularly focused on making the almighty dollar at the cost of enjoying life. 

“People say, ‘pain motivates me,’” Koffler says. “No, it does not. Pain slowly kills you. They’re missing the point. This whole exercise of being a human on Earth is to be happy. If it wasn’t, why would you go on vacation? Go out to dinner? Sure, you can be in pain all the time, but really, nobody wants that.” 

5 leadership lessons for home and work

Koffler’s advice to parents of young adults transitioning to adulthood post-high school can easily be applied to his fellow chief executives leading teams at work. While children are not the same as employees, parenting and leading an organization have a lot in common.

  1. It’s about your actions, not your words. “Parents have to model the behavior they want their kids to have,” he says. “If you’re uptight and worried about them getting the 4.0, and you’re worried about doing well at work, worried about all these things you can’t control, then that’s how your kids are going to be.” 
  2. Let go of some control. “Whether parenting or running a company, a successful person accepts they cannot control everything,” he explains. “Accept that you can’t control your staff. You can’t control your children. Simply, guide them best as you can, accept a range of outcomes, manage expectations, and you’ll find yourself much happier. Which, by definition, means you’ll find yourself more successful.”
  3. Seek, and accept, help. “Children are much more willing to accept help because they don’t know any different. Parents struggle because they think that they can overcome their challenges. And maybe they can to a certain extent, but they’re going to create scars, and it’s not helping anybody.”
  4. Limit your role. “My view of being a leader is to clear out the brush so my team can do their job. It doesn’t mean do the job for them. Provide explanations and constructive feedback when it’s appropriate. It’s the same thing when parenting,” Koffler explains. “Adulthood can’t be avoided. Begin to prepare them at a young age. I promise you it becomes more complicated the older they are when you start.”
  5. Recognize you don’t have all the answers. Koffler says, “I get it to a point that I’m going to have to work with a certain degree of unknowns. But just because it isn’t happening the way I envisioned doesn’t mean it’s incorrect or bad.” 

Replace the blueprint with a garden

The lessons Koffler shares mirror a parenting style called ‘gardening.’ According to developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, parents are either gardeners or carpenters. Carpenter parents “build” their children from a blueprint and follow stringent deadlines and plans, while gardener parents prepare the soil, nurture the child but let nature take her course. 

“I love a good plan, but you can’t let it control your life,” Koffler says about carpenter parenting. “Parenting is more like a democracy than a dictatorship. Democracy is messy. You may not like all the behaviors you get. But to set your children up for long-term success, you have to give them the opportunity to be an individual and to think creatively, to have broad-based experiences and exposure to the world — and most importantly, to make mistakes and recover from them!”

He acknowledge it might take 30 years to see the results of your hard work. “That’s frustrating,” he adds. “No on tells you what to expect when you become a parent. It’s ‘do the best you can.’ Be kind to yourself.”  

For YPO Members: Check out more topics like this one in the YPO Parenting Community Mental Health podcast series.