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When Parents Advocate for the Right Stuff

By Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

over involved parent 2Parents, when advocating for our children, let's make sure we advocate for the right things, and advocate in useful ways.

A consensus is building in this country that school should focus on a different set of educational outcomes—outcomes that really do predict success. Sure our kids still need the three R’s, but even more important are the Skills of a Good Decision-Maker.

In Mind in the Making (Harper Collins 2010) Ellen Galinsky names seven “life skills” that every child needs and points out that they are essentially all manifestations of a fully functioning prefrontal cortex, the brain’s “executive function.” The prefrontal cortex is the conductor of the symphony of the brain. When a person’s conductor is leading the brain well, the person can

  1. focus and exercise self-control
  2. take different perspectives (see things in other ways)
  3. connect (to people, concepts, ideas, facts)
  4. communicate
  5. think critically
  6. take on challenges
  7. engage with the environment and learn.

Another set of basics, often called “21st Century Skills,” originated with Harvard’s Tony Wagner. A few years ago Wagner started asking CEO’s: “Which qualities will our graduates need in the 21st century for success in college, careers, and citizenship?” Over 600 interviews later he published his list of Seven Survival Skills in The Global Achievement Gap (Basic Books 2010):

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem-solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading By Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurship
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination.

In this dynamic, rapidly changing world we can all think of others. What about the ability to handle disappointment and failure, learning from mistakes, and making conflict creative? What about the ability to self-monitor, to reflect on one’s own performance, and to self-correct?

Then there’s what the CEO of a big Canadian company told me on a plane once. He said, “People often ask me how you get to be CEO. I say, it’s not what you think. It's not about getting good grades, getting into a good business school and climbing the ladder of success. It’s about making mistakes. I made as many mistakes as I could. By the time I was 40 I had made as many mistakes as the average 80-year-old and was obviously as smart and as wise as the average 80-year-old. People noticed and gave me the job.”

All these definitions of important educational outcomes have one thing in common—they are what it looks like when a person is a good decision-maker. And so, however we define success, my new CEO friend-on-the-plane put his finger on the path to success:

Take on challenges.

Make decisions.

Learn from mistakes.

Take on the next challenge.

Whether one’s calling is politics or parenting, farming or family, medicine or marketing, we need to be able to make good decisions, and that means our children need practice making decisions.

Educators don’t give children skills, they create the conditions which increase the likelihood that children will acquire skills. Therefore, designing the environment—at home or at school—that maximizes the incidence of internally motivated decision-making with accurate, trustworthy feedback, is the best way for adults to help children to be successful.

And so, parents, when your child is having trouble with homework, and you decide it is time to talk to the teacher about it, here is your best line: “I want to get together with you so we can come up with the best way for me to help him at home—if at all.”

Don’t go storming in to school to find out why your A-student child only got a B on his last test, or why other kids are picking on him, or why she hasn’t learned to read yet. Asking “why” is not very a useful question. Contrary to popular practice, focusing on causation, usually doesn’t lead to useful action. The Why path usually takes us off the So-What path. In fact, it makes us look backward instead of forward.

To play the parent-role well, when your child comes to you with a challenge, here are some good lines:


“Wow. Tough challenge.”

“Mistake? Huh. What did you learn?”

“I know. I failed many times, too.”

“I know this is your baby, but is there some way I can be helpful?”

I am sure you can think of even better ones, yourself, but if you get stuck, always be ready with: “You can handle it.”

It’s the truth.

Posted on March 7, 2013 by Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with forty-five years of experience working in schools. He has served as head of four independent schools, speaks to parent and school groups across the country and presents at numerous education conferences. Rick is the author of The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children and lives in Decatur, Illinois. Visit his blog, The Genius in Children, or follow him on Facebook and  Twitter.

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