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I am thankful for the great feedback I have received as a result of this article that I originally posted in April, 2013. I hope you continue to find it helpful as you lead kids and build up authentic leaders.

stealing ambition

I visited the home of a friend of mine just after he’d coached another season of little league baseball. His son, Jacob, plays first base on the team. He is ten years old. As we were talking, my friend suggested to his son that he take me up to his room to show me the trophy he’d just won. Upon walking into his room, I was stunned. The room was filled with trophies and ribbons. It reminded me of the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York…only bigger. (OK—I admit, I’m exaggerating a bit). But, awards were everywhere. When I asked Jacob how many championships he had won—he looked blankly at the wall and said, “None.”

I soon discovered, every one of his awards was simply for playing on a team.

I realize this experience may not sound new to you. We are raising a generation of kids who are used to receiving recognition for participating. It started back in the 1980s, when moms and dads were determined to boost their kids’ self-esteem and encourage participation over conquest. I understand that; I am one of those parents. But I believe this works when a child is five; not when they’re ten or eleven. It has backfired, and we’re now reaping the consequences of this decision. I know a kid who gave the trophy back to his dad after the ceremony. He said, “This doesn’t mean anything.” These kids are not stupid. But I wonder if we are.

Reflect for a moment on the long-term impact of this kind of world. When a child gets to swing at a ball until he hits it (there are no strike outs), when coaches decide not to keep score (there are no losers), and when everyone gets an equal award in the end (we are all equal), it can begin to de-motivate kids, especially boys. It takes the steam out of their engine. They begin to think: Why try? I’m going get the same reward whether I put out any effort or not. And it’s easier…put out no effort.

This is not just about sports either. Adults so wanted these kids to feel special, we began to take away the possibility of failing a class. Students always seem to find a way to negotiate a grade or do some extra credit work to make up for failing to do what they’d been asked to do. Many parents have removed the possibility of failing at home; kids still get money or perks even if they failed to share the responsibilities around the house. As a result, college staff and faculty are reporting the comments that incoming students are making to them:

  • Why didn’t I get an A? I showed up to class every day.
  • You’re guaranteeing me a job once I graduate, right?
  • OK…so I flunked the test. What do I need to do to get the grade I want?
  • How come my suite mate got a scholarship and I didn’t?
  • If my parents pay the tuition, I deserve the grades I want.
  • I think the government’s job is to make sure I get a job and a house.
  • You can’t criticize me. I tried.

By wanting our children and students to be happy, we may have created the most depressed population of kids in recent history. By leading them in this way, we have all but removed ambition in them. We have most certainly diminished it. Below is the reason why this philosophy has holes in it:

As their possibility of failure goes down, so does their value of success.

Think about it. If I grow up in a world where almost everything has been given to me, or made easy—I start feeling entitled to it. In fact, I stop trying hard, because I know, somehow, an adult will insure I get what I need or want.

One of the most valuable commodities we can cultivate in this emerging generation of kids is ambition. By this I don’t mean selfish ambition, or some self-absorbed preoccupation. (Narcissism may or may not motivate a kid to try.) I am speaking of the internal drive to achieve and to grow. The motivation to excel in an area. Further, it is a motivation that comes from serving or adding value to others.

I feel most valuable when I add value to other people.

Self-esteem is not something we can conjure up with a few affirming statements, or by giving them a ribbon just because they’re pretty or showed up on time. It comes from them knowing who they are intrinsically, and using their gifts to contribute to a cause greater than them. I firmly believe ambition is part of the equation. Ambition builds self-esteem and vice versa. When I feel good about myself I tend to try harder. And when I try harder, I tend to feel better about myself.

So What Do We Do?

Here are some ideas for cultivating ambition in kids:

1. Let them fail, but when they do, interpret the failure with them.

Don’t rescue them, but if they fall or fail, talk it over. Show them it’s not the end of the world and is not a reflection on their identity. It is a chance to try again.

2. Tell them stories about your failures.

My kids love to hear me talk about my past flops, failure and fumbles. As we laugh together, they think: Wow, if you did that and still made it…there’s hope for me.

3. Help them put their finger on something they really want to achieve.

Goals are important. They are targets to shoot for, and either hit or miss. Once you identify a goal, help them create a plan to reach it.

4. Establish rewards that only come as they work hard and make progress.

Separate the idea of merely “showing up” from putting out effort. Big difference. Set a reward that they can get only if they really excel.

5. Discuss your ambitions and how you felt when you accomplished them.

Once again, it’s the power of stories. Talk about an ambition you had years ago, and how you felt when you pursued it; how rewarding it was inside to earn it.

6. Communicate your love and belief in them, regardless of what happens.

Love should not be a reward for performing. Caring adults must demonstrate belief regardless of their accomplishments. This is a solid foundation for ambition.


Host an event for parents or faculty & staff that will help define a realistic model for coaching and guiding kids to true maturity.


I appreciate everyone who reads, comments, and sparks continued research through our blog articles. I wanted to take this week to post the top 5 articles that have helped leaders like you over the last 10 years. Today’s article is “The Secret to Raising Emotionally Healthy Kids.”


We live in complex times. As I work with thousands of parents and faculty each year, I’m increasingly convinced we have a more engaged set of adults who care about kids today than at any time since I began my career in 1979. Simultaneously, however, I am observing a more troubled population of kids, especially by the time they reach their teen years. It appears at first like an oxymoron. How can such a cared-for generation experience such emotional difficulties?

Today, more kids struggle with depression and anxiety than at any time in modern times. In The Price of Privilege, Dr. Madeline Levine argues America’s newly-defined at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families. In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders and unhappiness of any group of children in this country. Adolescent suicide has quadrupled since 1950.

Diagnosing the Emotional Health Problem in Many Kids Today

As I speak to psychologists and career counselors, I’ve begun to hear a term over and over, as they describe the emotional state of young people. This term appears to be a paradox, but it aptly defines perhaps millions of adolescents in America:

“High Arrogance, Low Self-esteem”

How can someone be cocky, yet not have a healthy sense of identity? Consider the reality they face. In a recent undergraduate survey, Dr. Art Levine reports that grade inflation has skyrocketed. In 1969, only 7 percent of students said their grade point average was an A- or higher. In 2009, it was 41 percent. In that same time period, students having a C average dropped from 25% to 5%. But with grade inflation at an all-time high, it’s surprising to note that 60 percent of students believe their grades understate the true quality of their work. They believe they deserve a higher mark. One has to wonder — are kids that much smarter than forty years ago, or do we just give them higher grades to keep the customer? The fact is, while student scores continue to decline when compared to other nations, the one statistic that remains constant is that our kids continue to assume they’re awesome.

Sheltered by parents, teachers and coaches who fear that unhappy kids are a poor reflection on them, we have rewarded them quickly, easily and repeatedly. Kids naturally begin believing they are amazing. Case in point: My son recently took part in a theatre arts competition. Parents paid dearly to enable their kid to get on stage, and now I know why. Every single student got a medal, just for showing up. When they performed, they received extra medals. The medal levels were: gold, high gold and platinum. (Did you notice that gold was the lowest award possible?) Here’s the clincher. If your kid didn’t get the award he wanted, trophies were on sale after the competition. This is not uncommon. Kids today have received trophies for ninth place in Little League baseball. They get fourth-runner up medals at competitions. Ribbons and stars are given out routinely. Of course they are arrogant. With little effort, they’ve been awarded a prize.

The problem is, as they age, they begin to suspect this affirmation is skewed. In fact, mom may be the only one telling them they’re “special” or amazing. By college, kids meet all kinds of other “special” students, who are as smart or athletic as they are. Between the ages of 17-24, kids now experience their first real “failure.” They bump up against hardship and difficulty and often aren’t resilient enough to bounce back. Truth be told, when a kid has been told they are “excellent” without working hard or truly adding value to a team, it rings hollow to them. We must realize that our affirmation must match their performance. Low self-esteem hits them at this point (often their freshmen or sophomore year in college) because they suddenly recognize their esteem may be built on a foundation of sand.

Solving the Emotional Health Problem in Many Kids Today

My point is not to suggest your child isn’t special in his own right. My point is that this is only part of the story. In preparing our young people for adulthood, we must give them a sense of the big picture. We must drip doses of reality with all the praise. When I see troubled kids from upper-middle class homes, it makes me wonder:

• Question: Are they fragile because they’ve been sheltered?

• Question: Are they unmotivated because they’ve been praised too quickly?

• Question: Do they get anxious or fearful because they’ve never taken risks?

• Question: Are they self-absorbed because they’ve been rewarded so often?

• Question: Do they move back home after college because they’re ill-prepared?

I believe two sets of messages must be communicated to students during the first two decades of their life. Sadly, very often only one set of messages gets through. The first ten years, we must communicate childhood messages. If we have done this well, they are prepared for necessary adolescent messages that prepare them for a challenging adult world:

Childhood Messages 

1.You are loved.

2. You are unique.

3. You have gifts

4. You are safe.

5. You are valuable.

Adolescent Messages

1. Life is difficult.

2. You are not in control.

3. You are not that important.

4. You are going to die.

5. Your life is not about you.

I recognize this may sound harsh, but I find myself having to communicate the second set of messages far too often to a college student. If we love these students, we will relay both messages. They deserve the truth from us and they deserve a childhood that prepares them for the life that awaits them as adults. Whether they are emotionally ready as they enter adult life… will be up to us.


Want to learn more about how to raise emotionally healthy kids?  Bring home a copy of Artificial Maturity to drill deeper.


What would you do if you found a wallet containing $50, a cell phone number, a business card and a family photo? That’s precisely what Reader’s Digest aimed to find out by dropping 12 such lures on sidewalks and in parks in 16 major cities in Europe, North and South American and Asia. Of the 192 wallets “lost,” 47% were returned. Hmmm. About half of them.

Passing on Character

Helsinki, Finland, wins the honesty test by giving back 11 of the 12 wallets, earning the designation “The Saints” from Reader’s Digest. “Finns are naturally honest; it’s typical for us, ” said Lasse Luomakoski, a 27-year-old business student who was one of the people who handed over the leather and the loot.

The “Shame on You” for least honest pointed fingers at Bucharest, Romania; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Zurich, Switzerland, whose locals returned four wallets; as well as to Prague, The Czech Republic, where three wallets were returned; and to Madrid, Spain, with two wallets. The city in which you should tightly clutch your cash is Lisbon, Portugal, where only one wallet boomeranged back to the owner.

What predicts whether the wallet was pocketed or turned in? Young and old, men and women, as well as those in wealthy and poor areas handed back the dropped goods. The deciding factor: upbringing and sometimes experience.

“People who returned the wallets, ” says Raimo Moysa, editor-in-chief, Reader’s Digest International Magazines, “told us over and over ‘This is the only right thing to do. I’ve been taught to do this.’ Occasionally, someone said that he or she had lost a wallet and it was returned, so that person decided to do the same.”

What Do We Learn About Character?

In the end, values and character are passed down to the next generation by example. I know, it’s old news—but this is key for us as adults to understand. The reason folks returned wallets was two reasons:

  1. They saw their parents model it and teach it.
  2. Someone returned their wallet when they lost it.

In other words, character is learned when it’s seen. Social scientists call this moral intelligence. It is like a language—it can be learned by watching others speak the language. It’s no wonder cheating is so rampant in schools today—look at the adults that students have watched in the news over the last ten to fifteen years. We have led the way in scandals ourselves, over money (Wall Street, Enron, Tyco, Worldcom) over sex (Tiger Woods, Anthony Weiner, et all),

This is encouraging to me. Now…all we have to do is practice it.


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Artificial Maturity

photo credit: somegeekintn via photopin cc

dunce hat

Every teacher, coach, parent or employer has been tempted to come unglued at a young person, when they do or say something unwise or immature:

  • Drinking underage
  • Sending inappropriate texts
  • Driving while drunk
  • Showing disrespect
  • Stealing petty cash
  • Using illegal drugs
  • Bullying another student
  • Harming themselves or others

Results from a new study, conducted by psychologist Ming-Te Wang, at the University of Pittsburgh, reveal that shouting or yelling can not only be ineffective, it can be harmful. This study of 967 middle-class families and teenagers sought to discover the effectiveness of adult leadership with teens and their mental health. Thirteen-year-olds who were repeatedly subjected to harsh verbal communication were more likely to have symptoms of depression within one year, according to the study. They were also more likely to display problem behaviors such as anger, aggression, vandalism, and misconduct, according to the study. In short, aggression leads to aggression.

Often, a caring adult experiences this sequence of events: at first they lay down the rules calmly, hoping for the best. Later, they discover the rules have not been kept, and they sense insubordination or disrespect. When the teen exhibits no remorse for the misbehavior, emotions heighten, and soon, there is screaming and yelling on one or both parts.

This sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Discipline vs. Punishment

Our problem is, while we want to refrain from any violent or loud reaction, eventually, the emotion has been suppressed for so long, it erupts like a volcano, and displaces our logic. Rational leaders become irrational as they react to repeated problem behavior. It is punitive, not redemptive in nature.

It’s been said a million times, but let me remind you of an important distinction:

Punishment: Looks backward and penalizes a student for misconduct.

Discipline: Looks forward and attempts to correct a student’s misconduct.

The key to leading during problem behavior in students is to look forward not backward. We must establish boundaries up front and enforce equations when those students step out beyond them. There may be no need for high emotion at all. In the same way a police officer remains calm as he issues you a traffic citation, you can simply level the benefits or consequences based on the student’s conduct. It’s an equation both parties understood from the beginning. When you do this up front, your leadership is always looking forward in a redemptive hope, not backward in angry revenge. When leaders do this, they can have firm but gentle conversations, where the student can see that the leader is not merely at the “end of their rope” and erupting. Over time, the student recognizes the equations are real.

In their book Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman unveil research which shows that spanking kids within white (caucasian) parents has a worse affect than among African-Americans. For whites, the spanking is frequently a last resort, done in high emotion and anger. The parent has told themselves over and over they won’t spank their child, until finally, they give up and react. It’s not pretty and has negative ramifications, just as the study points out above. More often in minority families, the spanking was done as a routine part of discipline for a young child. The child never questions the parent’s care for them. This has less to do with whether spanking is right or wrong-it has to do with the leader’s self-control.

What Discipline Looks Like:

1. The adult talks over the boundaries and clarifies consequences and benefits.
2. The adult calmly clarifies and expresses belief that the young person will follow through.
3. If the young person steps out of bounds, the adult meets with them to discuss it.
4. When verified, the adult levels the consequences to the agreed upon equation.
5. The adult suggests action steps or accountability to prevent a repeat performance.

I recognize this sounds over-simplified. I admit that every case is unique, but I’ve seen first-hand this “discipline” verses “punishment” approach work well.

For example, increasing numbers of school principals and university deans practice this well. As students misbehave, they’re able to sit down and demonstrate empathy for the student. They say things like: “Wow. What you just did doesn’t sound like you at all. Are you OK? Is anything wrong at home?” Soon, the student is opening up and sharing the real reasons behind their explosion. The dean doesn’t remove the consequence, but in conversation, he or she fosters a transformation in the student. Life is full of equations, but adults are present to believe in their future.

Here’s to looking forward not backward.


Bring Tim to share the future of student development with your faculty and staff.



In the last podcast, we talked about “How to Stop Stealing a Kid’s Ambition“.  We went through three different types of incentives that we’re seeing in kids and how we can build ambition through that. Today we are talking about six practical ways that we can foster ambition in kids.


A recent story broke out in Paris, France about a young teenage girl who was stressed about an upcoming test. As a result of her anxiety over the test, her mother decided to dress up as a young 19-year old to go in and take her daughter’s test for her. Can you believe that? She was discovered and escorted out of the test location by police and her daughter is now banned from taking standardized tests for three years. Good intention, wrong approach.

Statistics are telling us that kids are showing less ambition and less drive than their parents at that age. There are exceptions to this of course, but the majority are lacking ambition and end up leaving college without knowing what path they want to pursue, often leaving them stuck post-college.

I believe we’ve cultivated entitlement through excessive trophies, awards, stars, and other rewards we’ve given because we want our kids to feel good about themselves as they grow up. By telling them they’re great, doesn’t actually build ambition or self-esteem. It builds good feelings, or maybe even narcissism.

I’m sure most everyone has seen at least one episode of the initial American Idol try-outs. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if they are doing a song or a comedy act. You listen to them, and wonder what kind of inaccurate feedback these kids are getting. Kids need to know what their gifts are.

Consider these two thoughts to give you wisdom as you lead students:

  1. I believe as a young person’s possibility of failure goes down, so does their value of success. One of the most valuable commodities we can cultivate is ambition (which is the result of incentive, deriving from internal motivation).
  2. I feel most valuable when I add value to others. Your reward should come from the value that you contribute. Whether that’s in sports, your community, or with chores at your family’s household, adding value gives you a sense of self-esteem.

How do we actually build ambition in students?

  1. Let our students fail. But when they do, interpret the failure with them.
  2. Tell them stories about your own failures. This is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our students, they want to know they’re not the only ones who fail.
  3. Help them identify what they really want to achieve. Ambition may start from curiosity.
  4. Establish rewards that only come as they work hard and make progress.
  5. Discuss your ambitions, and how you felt when you accomplished them. Kids lean in to stories and the power of narratives.
  6. Communicate your love and belief in them, regardless of what happens. They need to know they’re in an environment of unconditional love; whether that’s at home, school, or in sports.

A great example of this is the story of Zach Hunter. As a 14-year old, he developed a curiosity and passion for anti-slavery around the world. He found out there are more slaves today, than at any point in American history. Zach started raising money, through a movement he calls “LOOSECHANGE2LOOSENCHAINS“. He’s raised thousands of dollars to give to organizations that were helping to stop trafficking of children and adults in slavery. Zach ‘s passion was ignited not only because he was told he was great, but because he was doing great things.

I would love to hear your stories. How have you built incentive and ambition in kids today?