Ferguson was fascinated with what parents did to shape his talented students. So he and co-author Tatsha Robertson comprehensively studied how different parenting styles shape children’s success. Test subjects included the youngest statewide elected official in the country and the mother of the CEOs of YouTube and 23andMe (the genetics company).
Play these eight roles well to ace the role of a lifetime (being a parent):
1. The “early learning partner.”
This role has parents getting their child interested in learning at a young age, before they start school. The most successful kids can read basic words by kindergarten and experienced what Ferguson calls “the early lead effect” where the child responds positively to a teacher’s excitement that they can already read.
2. The “flight engineer.”
This is the parent monitoring the child’s growth environment, ensuring they’re getting what they need or intervening.
This isn’t being a helicopter parent, who Ferguson says “are so involved in their children’s lives they don’t create space for them to develop independent relationships, learn how to negotiate for themselves, or identify their own interests.” My wife and I started playing this role when we encountered a teacher that wasn’t giving our daughter a fair shake.
3. The “fixer.”
In this role, the parent ensures no key opportunity for their child’s betterment is lost–and they don’t let a lack of resources slow them down. As Ferguson said, “The parents might be living in poverty, but if they see an opportunity they judge to be essential for their child’s success in school or life, they’ll walk through walls to get it.”
4. The “revealer.”
Parents playing this role find joy in helping the child discover the world by going to museums, libraries, exhibits, etc.–anything to expand the child’s worldview. Again, this happens even with a lack of resources; the revealer parents get creative in how to accommodate such outings. This has gotten extra focus from my wife and I, who are fans of experiences over things.
5. The “philosopher.”
Ferguson says this is the second most important role behind the early learning partner because it helps children find purpose. Here, the parents ask and answer deep life questions, never underestimating a child’s capacity to understand life and grasp the idea of meaning. I’ve been astonished at how early my daughter grasped these things.
6. The “model.”
This is classic role-modeling. Parents who do this well are clear on the values important to them and work hard to pass those values on to their children, who then aspire to emulate them. My wife and I try to live our core values each day–but that doesn’t mean it comes easy or that we always succeed.
7. The “negotiator.”
This role teaches the child to be respectful while standing up for themselves and what they believe in (especially in the face of those with power and authority).
8. The “GPS navigational voice.”
Ferguson described this as, “The parents’ voice in the child’s head after the child has left home, coaching the young adult through new situations in life.” I can only hope our daughter’s GPS never says “recalculating” given the work we’ve done to try and keep it on course.
Reassuringly, the Harvard researcher said that the single most important quality for parents to exhibit as they wear these different hats is simply the sheer determination to be a great parent. He calls this motivation “the burn” and says it often comes out of things in the parent’s backstories:
It could be something that went wrong in their own childhoods that they didn’t want repeated for their own children. It could be a family legacy of excellence in some domain that they felt a responsibility to pass on to their offspring. Or some commitment that the family had, for example, to civil rights, that they wanted their children to honor. But each of these parents had a vision of the kind of person they wanted their children to become. That vision, along with the burn, guided and inspired their parenting.
So whatever your “burn” is, use it to play these eight roles well. None of the roles are always easy, but all of them are important for giving your child every chance to succeed.