Redefine what success means for your children

If our goal as parents is to raise concerned and considerate human beings, let's free our children from the rat-race and redefine what true success is

Mother daughter playing outdoors

The scramble for a Kindergarten seat is only the beginning of an almost lifelong quest of bagging limited resources so our kids are not left wanting. From getting admission into an elite school to a prestigious college to landing a plum job, parenting in the 21st century is predicated on the capitalist assumption that resources for our children are limited or scarce. As a result, parents vie with one another, coaxing kids to tote up achievements and successes. Marketeers, playing to parental angst, tout their products or services as the one that will give children an edge. Be it coding classes, piano lessons, Kumon math, or tennis coaching, a slew of professionals help youngsters craft resumes so that they eventually get a much-coveted job.

But does childhood necessarily have to be such a mind-numbing and maddening rat-race? Not if you redefine what success means for your children.

In their book, Scarcity, behavioural economists, Senthil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir chronicle the effects of scarcity on human behaviour. The authors define scarcity as “having less than you feel you need” and identify different forms of this malaise. From poverty to social isolation to a lack of time, scarcity assumes various guises.

Though we cannot equate feeling crunched for time with living on a paltry daily wage, the authors argue that “Scarcity captures the mind.” Thus, a lonely person craving company rues about all the connections he is missing. A person who is starving or even dieting cannot help but think of food. According to Mullainathan and Shafir, when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it.

Scarcity shapes our behaviour

Modern parenting has become a 24/7 occupation. Though both parents may be working, they ensure that their children’s time is accounted for, moment to moment. From dawn to dusk, children’s regimen is chalked out. Wake up, swimming coaching, school, music class, Hindi tuition, homework, sleep on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the schedule includes online Math tuition, school, karate class, coding and homework. While kids may get some downtime on weekends, parents usually check in whether their wards are staying abreast of various school projects and tests.

Mullainathan and Shafir believe that scarcity also directs our attention. It impacts what we observe, the choices we make, the decisions we take and our behaviour. Besides confirming that kids follow their schedules, parents also have their radars tuned to the latest fads, lest their kids fall behind.

A few years ago, there was a rush for phonics classes for pre-schoolers. Kumon math held sway for a while. Now, coding classes attract younger and younger kids. Elitist hobbies like horse riding, surfing and ballet are being pursued by increasing droves of children, often stretching the purse strings of middle-class families.

A mind “preoccupied by scarcity” also has less bandwidth for other aspects of life, argue the authors and we end up neglecting other concerns.

What does “being preoccupied by scarcity” look like in the context of parenting?

As parents zero in on prepping children for the future workplace, they tend to fixate on tangible achievements and successes of their wards. They place a premium on cognitive or academic skills and extracurricular activities that can lead to stellar careers. But this focus on accomplishments that are valued by society doesn’t necessarily address all the needs of a child.

Human development entails growth in physical, social, emotional, linguistic, cognitive and spiritual domains. In today’s hi-tech world, we can possibly also add a digital dimension as children have to learn how to navigate a virtual world responsibly and sensibly.

When the child becomes his achievements

When kids are young, parents pay more attention to the different aspects of human growth and potential. They delight in their baby’s gurgles, applaud his first steps, take pride in her first word, gaze fondly as their little one charms people and are amazed at how adept their toddler is with an iPad.

But once children start school, the prism through which parents view their kids gets narrowed. Their appreciation of the whole child slowly but sadly gets reduced to the grades or marks the child brings home as scarcity imposes a “focus dividend” or tunneling. Further, the authors point out, the scarcity mindset operates at both conscious and subconscious levels. So, parents are not always aware of its grip on their child rearing choices. As they emphasise intellectual growth and extracurricular activities, parents pay less attention to other aspects of children’s development.

While this unidimensional focus may help children drum up achievements and accolades on their resumes, at times, it can lead to compromised growth in other areas. While the emotionally-attuned parent may pick up signs of apathy or burnout in their kids, many don’t spot the signals in their children, until they reach a clinical threshold. As parents have limited bandwidth, their capacities to respond to all the needs of growing children may get blunted.

How to redefine what success means for your children

If your wish to redefine what success means for your children, you must first break out of the scarcity mindset. To do that, you need to stop viewing children as human capital. Further, you need to reset and redefine your parenting goals.

In a blog of the website Psyche, philosopher Erin Cline advocates that we take a few leaves out of ancient Chinese philosophy to guide our parenting. First, she asks us to broaden our construct of success. As ancient Chinese philosophers emphasised, a “life well lived” entails being “happy, fulfilled and finding meaning in what [you] do and who [you] are.” Ancient Chinese traditions of Confucianism and Daoism both highlight human flourishing in moral rather than material terms. Cline exhorts parents to help children flourish by cultivating core human values.

So, once again, if your wish to redefine what success means for your children, start by introspecting. Instead of focusing only on your child’s future, ask yourself if all the myriad needs of your children are being met in the present?

You might ask yourself questions such as :

  • Is my child happy with her day-to-day life?
  • Is he forging bonds with people both in and out of the house?
  • Is my daughter getting adequate physical activity?
  • Is my son exhibiting kindness, compassion and patience?
  • Is my daughter learning to navigate the pulls and tugs of the Net in a responsible manner?
  • Is my child learning to respect and celebrate difference in others?
  • Does my child enjoy learning for its own sake?
  • Is my daughter developing a passion in any area that needs to be nurtured?

Cline also urges parents to “resist conformity.” Instead of feeling pressured to sign up for a Bharatanatyam class because everyone in your child’s class is doing it, try to observe your child as an individual with unique needs and talents.

As each child is different, we need to cater to their distinctive profiles and help them discover a path that resonates with their constellation of proclivities and affinities. Rather than being dictated by stringent social perceptions of power and prestige, we should encourage our children to find a route that is the best fit for them even if it means being “actively countercultural.”

The crux of the matter

Ultimately, our goal as parents is to raise concerned and considerate human beings. By letting go of our fixation on school marks, admission test scores, college rankings and future salaries of our children, we need to nurture children so that they find “joy, fulfilment and deeper meaning” in whatever career or vocation they choose to follow.

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Aruna Sankaranarayanan
Aruna Sankaranarayanan, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author. She writes articles on teaching, learning, work, relationships and well-being for leading newspapers; she blogs at Her first book, Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know, is published by Rupa.


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