Relationships, You & Your Family

Raising successful children in an age of uncertainty

Champion runners like Sebastian Coe and Usain Bolt are famous. Ivan Fernandez is less known. Whilst the first two are known for setting world records, Fernandez’s claim to fame is coming in second in a race—when he could have been first.

In that race, he had been trailing the frontrunner, a Kenyan named Abel Mutai. As Mutai neared the finish line, he slowed down, thinking that he had already crossed it. Fernandez caught up but instead of surging forward for the gold medal, he motioned Mutai to keep on running. Fernandez said after the race that winning is not everything—how one wins also matters.

The race of life presents many challenges. How do we as adults and parents prepare our young for this race? This question is pertinent in a competitive society—where the principle of meritocracy is applied as a key driver and the workplace can be a dog-eat-dog contest. This question is all the more important amidst the current uncertainties.

There are two strategies parents can adopt.

The first is what I call a win-at-all-cost strategy. Give your child an early head-start in life. For instance, register them early in the best enrichment programmes and cover the broadest possible range of skills—from languages to numeracy, ballet to wushu, robot-building to drama training. Put them in the best schools and ensure that they join CCAs that get them ahead of the pack. Get them to volunteer to help the less privileged and receive recognition for being well-rounded.

The merit of this strategy is that the prize of success can be significant. Society does acknowledge and reward winners. Its downside is also substantial. To get to the pinnacle, sacrifices are often required. Some talk of a “lost childhood”. It can also be lonely at the top. And for every success story, there are scores who do not make it. They lie by the wayside defeated and demoralised.

The second strategy is to aim for excellence but without a “at-all-cost” mentality. In other words, strive for excellence but not necessarily success. If excellence brings success, that is well and good.

This strategy is consistent with the question, “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and suffers the loss of his soul?” (Mark 8:36) It focuses not so much on the outcome but on the process, which does not require surrendering our humanity or losing compassion for others. Ivan Fernandez felt that winning through his rival’s mistake would have been a hollow victory.

Parents adopting this strategy must build a firm foundation of unconditional positive regard. This can be demonstrated by willingness to catch one’s children when they fail and fall, assuring them that failure is neither fatal nor final, and helping them learn from their successes and mistakes. When children are raised in such an environment, they grow up not fearful about trying new things, failing or suffering setbacks. This fearlessness is so necessary in times of uncertainty.

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.