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How to prep your kids for college

Christine Carter, director, Greater Good Parents | September 13, 2011

Are you one of those parents who has been thinking about your kids’ schooling since birth? Are the researchers mentioned above talking about YOU? (If you’re not sure, here’s a litmus test: Does your baby have a onesie from your alma mater that reads “Class of 20XX”?)

Or maybe your kids are in high school, and you are starting to worry about their college prospects, perhaps even wishing that you’d started thinking about it all a bit earlier.

In my post before Labor Day I agonized over my kids’ after-school schedule, coming to the conclusion, thanks to the help of a handful of economists, that more “enrichment” activities do not further kids’ academic success.

Which begs the question: How can parents influence children’s academic achievement, besides by being intelligent and well-educated themselves? (The economists in this overview of the topic deem genetics the most robust predictor of academic success).

The economists, all concerned with raising their own children, clearly didn’t examine how happiness influences kids’ success (if they had, they would all be taking my online course and subscribed to this blog). They missed the good news: there are a plethora of studies which make it abundantly clear how to best help your children reach their potential in school, on the athletic field, and in virtually all of their extra-curricular pursuits.

Greater Good contributor Sonja Lubomirksy and her colleagues conducted an enormous meta-analysis of research (evaluating 200+ studies involving nearly 300,000 people) about success. This is what they found: “Happy individuals are successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health.”

We tend to think that when we are successful—or when our kids are successful—THEN we will be happy. But that isn’t what Lubomirsky and her colleagues found. They noticed that while success does, sometimes, make us happy, more often than that happiness precedes success. In other words, they found considerable evidence that happiness causes success—not just academically, but in virtually every area of our lives.

And happiness is, my dear readers, something we can influence in our children. Emotions are more like properties of groups than qualities of individuals (more on that next week): When we are happy, and the people around us are happy, our children are likely to be, too.

This means that happiness is not just something we parents should care about; it is something that schools need to foster, too. Happiness isn’t just a nice-to-have, It is a MUST-HAVE for academic success.

It is no longer okay to assume that hard work and diligent training alone are going to produce that star student who goes on to Harvard and lives happily-ever-after. It isn’t enough to know political science and organic chemistry and art history for a productive, joyful, meaningful life. We also need to teach our kids the skills they need for happiness. So that they might also be successful in life.

In other words, happiness will help your kids get into college. Maybe more than anything else, like playing a zillion varsity sports or that amazing SAT prep class.

This is because happiness and positive emotions — like gratitude and optimism and contentedness — fuel success, in addition to making life worth living.

I will leave you with this quote from Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, which is another one of those science-based business books I think applies to parenting as well:

“Happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.”

This school year, let’s all commit to fostering happiness, not just academic success!


— Achor, Shawn, 2010, The Happiness Advantage, New York: Crown Business.
— Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Laura King, and Ed Diener, 2005, Psychological Bulletin, “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?”, Vol. 131, No. 6, pp. 803-855.
“The Economists Guide to Parenting”

Cross-posted from Christine Carter’s blog, Raising Happiness (tag line: Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents).

Comments to “How to prep your kids for college

  1. my daughter made the same decision that I did to take college courses before starting college, but she started her junior year of high school. She’ll carry a full load as a freshman, but not as full as she would have otherwise. That’s critical because she’ll have to achieve balance between her school work, holding down a job, and using her spare time to take advantage of the growth opportunities her program will offer that are outside of class time. This tactic saved us money, as well, because she took the courses at a local community college that had a lower per-hour fee than the college she’ll attend. Before enrolling your children, make sure that the colleges your children are interested in will accept the coursework (i.e. it will transfer) and on what basis (e.g. pass-fail or a minimum grade)

  2. School is a laboratory for life. As such, it teaches children—for good or ill—how to interact with peers and authority figures. Children, as they say, can be brutal. Middle school is a particularly difficult time for girls because of their physical, social, and emotional development at this time in their lives. My daughters hated middle school not because of the academics but because of the way girls treated one another. I had a lot of long, intimate conversations with them about how to navigate friendships that change and dissolve, how to deal with the formation of cliques, how to better understand boys, and how to avoid drugs and alcohol. When children don’t effectively navigate the emotional and social aspects of school—regardless of school level—their academic performance can suffer. If your children need professional help, don’t hesitate to get it for them. Don’t wait for something bad to happen—expect it to happen and be proactive.

  3. Nice article I would like to write about how to How to prep your kids for charity work — it would be great if collages could make it compulsory to do 2 months of work with charity

  4. I wish I’d had access to this kind of information while raising my own family. I hope my adult children will read and benefit from this discussion and others like it. Thanks.

  5. As parents living in the age of economical recession we all are concerned whether higher education opportunities will be available or affordable for our children. Not only financial aspects, but many times the emotional side of the problem is a bigger dilemma. We have to teach them an independent thinking and creativity from early childhood.

    When my son, who didn’t have any educations decided to establish this business, I was furious and against it, but now seeing him being successfull in small but own business, giving me a peace of beleive that he is ready to fight for his interests and no mommy or daddy is required to show how to recognize white from black. Thanks for all comments, it was a pleasure reading it.

  6. Our 13 year old loves to volunteer, bake and deliver to neighbors, lay around in her p.j.’s all weekend, sit and watch a hummingbirds for hours with her father and i, write and sing songs, be kind to everyone even when it is not reciprocated which hurts her. she is bright and multi-dimensional. rigorous academics would actually harm her more than empower her. she is already empowered by knowing the simple pleasures of life and has a fully opened heart and an engaging mind.

    To wallpaper our desires and expectations on her is nothing short of child abuse. in order to secure her happiness we need to allow her to continue to march to her own drum and keep the road cleared of as much debris put on her path by society. i am sure this methodology applies to many children stuck in the snow globe of their parents desires and unprocessed fears.

  7. I enjoyed reading your post and the first response. As a former UC Berkeley graduate I’m struggling with accepting or dealing with the idea that our children may not want to attend Berkeley. In the end I realize that although it may be my desire for them to attend here and find a spouse like we did, it doesn’t matter. We can’t push or pursuade them into making this decision. The only thing that matters is that they are happy and the vision we have for their life path may be completely different then the path they are traveling down.

    We never stop telling them that UC Berkeley is the best school, hopefully they will figure this out on their own.

    Another topic related to prepping your children for college that I haven’t seen anyone blog about is living conditions. I lived in the on-campus Foothill apartments, but had a nightmare experience when I moved off campus. My daughter came across an interesting website called which allows prospective students to search and post reviews on apartments and student housing. This site is worth checking out if you have children moving off campus.

  8. Great post. And what a surprise! (Not.) My wife and I have never understood all the fear evidenced by our friends who, at great expense, move out of their neighborhood to get into a “better” school district. We’ve never understood that manic fear because we’ve always suspected our kids’ “success” (whatever that means) is more dependent on what happens in our house than at their school.

    When we moved from our first house, which was in a lower-income, ethnnically rich neighboorhood to a larger house, our kids all chose to stay in their original schools, which were “under-performing.” Well, our three kids have since all graduated from UCs (Berkeley and Santa Barbara).

    My wife and I both have master degrees, and in our household we promoted laughter, self-effacement, hard work, respect, intellectual discussion, reading, art, etc…. I think all that may have contributed to their “success,” which I define as being a good citizen, being responsible, having a strong work ethic, being adventuresome, being creative, respecting other people and themselves, etc.–qualities we are proud to see in our adult children.

    I sometimes wonder when these manic parents of forced over-achievers will finally know that all their moving into “better” school districts and rushing all over town for extra-curricular activities for their kids will finally have paid off. Will it be after their kid graduates from Harvard and gets a starting salary of $150K and a big new car and huge stucco house in Blackhawk? Silly. They may find to their dismay that their kids have grown up just like them: fearful, two-dimensional, focused on shallow goals, and obsessing about material objects like shiny cars and big homes. JB

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