“The direction our kids are heading is troubling.”

Michael Rouse, CEO of ESF Camps & Experiences, said this at a recent event at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, PA. He was there to co-host a program called Life Beyond Athletics. Gathered with him were leading experts on sports and kids. The central question of the night was: As parents, how do we create extraordinary men and women?

Best-selling author Jim Loehr, PhD, one the event’s headliners, said, “People are born to chase. They’re purpose-driven.” But what is their purpose—and how can we prepare them to pursue it? This is important, he said, because purpose sets the rules for everything else.

What is our highest priority in raising kids?

This was the first question Loehr asked his audience of 300 parents. Where does achievement fit in? he added. How high is achievement on the list of what we want for our kids? How can they be happy, good people, and also be high achieving?

The danger comes when parents coach kids to happiness at the cost of being a good people. “We must make sure the purpose is right,” Loehr said. “It’s our job to help our kids be stronger, healthier, more resilient adults of great character, better prepared to handle the demands of life.”

The idea isn’t to pressure kids to win, but to push them to be better people. “It’s about more than what they’re chasing. It’s about who our kids are becoming.”

After years of research at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, the biggest insight Loehr and his team found is that health ignites performance. Health, though, he said, is defined this way:

  • Physical health: rest, sleep, diet
  • Emotional health: optimism, hope, confidence, and resiliency
  • Mental health: focus, positive inner voice, constructive, and living in the present
  • Spiritual health: character

“Spiritual health is the single most important demonstration of a healthy, robust life.”

Beyond this, Loehr said, it’s critical to set the priority for our kids: to be a person of character first, and then a student/athlete.

Loehr said that parents’ scorecard is measured by who their kids are and what their character looks like. There are two sets of character traits:

  • Performance character: focus, persistence, resilience, optimism, confidence, self-control, decisiveness, courage, ambition, and reliability
  • Ethical character: honesty, integrity, kindness, compassion, humility, trustworthiness, gratefulness, empathy, loyalty, and generosity

Another of the night’s panelists was Pat Croce, former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, the team he took from last place in the 1996 NBA Finals to first place in 2001. Croce called for parents to embrace what’s “now.” “Let your kids be in the now,” he said. “Let them be present.”

This, Croce said, breeds quality. He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” It’s that quality, that focus, that creates greatness in our kids.

“How you do anything is how you do everything.”

Croce shared this Zen proverb to help make the point that success has to do with both the quality of the person as well as the quality of the purpose.

Paul Assaiante, another panelist, is the Men’s Squash and Tennis coach at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. He guided the team to (and through) the longest-ever winning streak in college sports: sixteen national titles and 252 consecutive matches won from 1998 to 2012, including thirteen national championships. Despite all this winning, Assaiante said he also sees more kids cheating today, more bad decisions. He chalks this up to kids not having enough ownership over their journeys.

“Kids don’t know it’s okay to fail.”

Assaiante added that kids’  parents aren’t teaching them that failure breeds success, that each failure is a learning opportunity.

That winning streak aside, Assaiante has had failures of his own. He’s frank about the fact that his work kept him from being the best dad he could have been. He confessed that his son once said to him, “Dad, I can’t hear what you’re saying. Your actions are speaking too loud.”

That was his wake-up call. Today he suggests that parents teach empathy by modeling it. That means speaking their language. It also means discovering what your kids’ passions are. “Passion leads to joy,” he said. “Passion is the driver.”

If your kids’ passion is sports, Loehr said, then teach them to “use sport to learn about themselves. Sport is about learning the lessons of life in a dose that isn’t deadly.” Winning and losing with grace is critical. The lesson of loss is to hold oneself up despite it, to get through it.

To help our kids become successful adults, one of the keys appears to be living our lives as parents in a way that shows our kids how to live theirs. To create character, we must illustrate it. “Lots of people can coach kids,” Loehr said, “but only two people can be their parents.”

This point was echoed at a Fathers’ Forum event held this past weekend at The Nantucket Project in Greenwich, CT. Dan Brenner, a psychologist and Darien (CT) Superintendent of Schools, talked about reaction formations. These are the behaviors kids see in their parents that they tend to recoil from. “Do we model behavior that’s repeated by our kids,” Brenner asked, or do we model behavior that they reject? Effective parenting, he said, falls somewhere in between.

All of this reminded me of a line from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. “Careful the things you say, children will listen,“ the finale warns. “Careful the things you do, children will see.”

—Tony Buchsbaum