Harvard professor Ronald Ferguson, author of The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children, recently told the Harvard Gazette he’s done exactly that.
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 the genetics company 23andMe.
Eight parental roles that Ferguson says make up the formula for master parenting. “It was like a hidden pattern that gradually revealed itself–a set of widely recognized, well-researched qualities that are the basic success foundations.”
Play these eight roles well and you’ll 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. Ferguson calls the early learning partner the most important role of the eight. The most successful kids can read basic words by kindergarten, and experience 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, making sure they’re getting what they need and intervening when they’re not.
This isn’t the same as 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 says, “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.”
Revealer parents help their child discover the world by going to museums, libraries, exhibits, etc.–anything to expand their worldview. Again, this happens even with a lack of resources; revealer parents get creative in how to accommodate such outings. My wife and I have given this one extra focus, since we’re fans of experiences over things.
5. The “philosopher.”
Ferguson says this is the second most important role, 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 big ideas.
6. The “model.”
This is classic role-modeling. Parents who do this well are clear about which values are 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 most important quality for parents to exhibit as they wear these different hats is simply the determination to be a great parent. He calls this motivation “the burn,” and says it often comes out of things in the parents’ histories:
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.