The expectation of most parents is that their children be perpetual improvement machines: always learning and growing, developing greater executive function and stronger willpower. This is, of course, what naturally occurs as children grow up, but a deliberate focus on self-improvement can accelerate the process and take children further along than they would otherwise go, leading to greater success in school and in life. So parents’ expectation of effortful self-improvement is understandable.
But, then, the question I have for you is this:
Are you improving?
Are you deliberately making efforts to improve yourself, grow your abilities, learn new skills, become healthier, develop stronger willpower, practice productivity strategies, manage procrastination and perfectionism, and practice emotional regulation techniques?
I’d bet the answer is yes. Most adults do make an effort, to one degree or another, to improve themselves. So the point of this article isn’t to convince you to start a self-improvement program. Rather, my goal is to discuss how you can more actively model self-improvement by making both your efforts and your struggles more public.
Here are some important things to keep in mind as you strive to lead by example with respect to self-improvement:
One of the absolute worst things parents can do is pretend to be perfect. We all know that no one is perfect, but many parents mistakenly believe that they should never show their children their faults or weaknesses. And publicly struggling with self-improvement is tantamount to wearing a big sign around your neck that reads “I’m not perfect!” … which is precisely why you should do it. Your children need to see that you’re human. They don’t benefit from seeing you polish your public appearance while hiding your flaws. Your children need to see that you’re a work in progress, and that, of course, is exactly what you are. It’s what we all are.
Show your children how you struggle with balancing short-term and long-term goals. Managing what needs to get done today while simultaneously making time for self-improvement is hard. It takes strategic planning and critical thinking. It requires making difficult decisions in which there are no perfect answers, only trade-offs. It involves wrestling with conflicts between your desires and your values. Since you surely do all these things already, all I’m asking you to do is make these efforts more public. This might mean talking to yourself as you sort things out in the presence of your children. This might mean having planning conversations with your spouse when your children are in a position to overhear you.
Show your children how you, too, feel the desire to procrastinate. They need to see that it’s normal, and that there’s something you can do about it. Show them that you, too, find behavioral change difficult. And then, show them that there are techniques that can help. They need to see you struggle, and they need to see you dealing with your challenges strategically. There are loads of self-improvement strategies to experiment with. We cover some in the fourth class of our Parenting for Academic Success series, and I cover loads more on my other blog, becomingbetter.org.
By actively modeling deliberate and strategic self-improvement, you’ll be a living example of the growth mindset. The growth mindset is the belief that you can become better at anything through effort and strategy.1 This belief is essential for success in school and beyond, and the best way to instill it in your children is to model it for them through your own lifestyle. A key element of the growth mindset is seeing mistakes and failures as valuable learning opportunities, rather than as signs that you’re not good enough.1 So, as you strive to improve yourself, and you encounter the inevitable slip-ups that everyone does, make a point of publicly examining your mistakes to see what you can learn from them, rather than hiding your mistakes in shame.
And, when do you fall short, please try to remember to give yourself permission to be human. This means not beating yourself up for missing a workout, falling off your diet, forgetting an appointment, or otherwise messing up.2 It means being kind to yourself even though you’re imperfect.2 If your children don’t see you giving yourself permission to be human, they won’t know how to give themselves permission to be human. In other words, if you judge yourself harshly, your children will judge themselves harshly. And although it might seem like self-criticism would encourage self-improvement, it won’t.3 Self-compassion is what facilitates growth,3 and it’s a critical component of demonstrating how to deal with willpower failures well.
Now, if I’m wrong, and you’re not working on self-improvement, is it really fair for you to expect your child to do so? If that’s the case, then I have two messages for you. One is that self-improvement isn’t selfish – it’s a powerful way to lead by example, and it makes you more capable of serving others. The other is that it’s never too late to change, and you’re never done learning and growing. No human is a finished product. The clay never dries.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
2 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.
3 Neff, Kristin, Ph.D. Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. William Morrow, 2011.