How can you best ensure that your child gains a sense of self-fulfilment? The answer lies in good schools argues Dr Helen Wright, Headmistress of St Mary's School, Calne.
Think of the Olympics or any major world-class sporting event, and images spring to mind of endeavour, achievement and overwhelming emotion. I have always been particularly struck, however, by the family element - the athletes supported by their families and above all their parents, and I find it tremendously uplifting to hear the athletes speak when interviewed post-race or event. What is really striking about these post-race interviews is that the athletes who have just won medals - and even those who haven't - almost invariably thank their parents for what they have done for them to enable them to compete and win. Interviews such as these really bring it home that parents have a tremendous role to play in ensuring that their children possess, pursue, and achieve, a dream and a goal. As parents, we want to know how we can capture some of this magic: how can we prepare and coach our children to the ultimate goal of achieving their inner self-fulfilment?
Every child has some passion deep inside, however latent, in which they can excel, and it is part of their life journey to discover what it is. Self-fulfilment for your son or daughter means first finding out about who they are deep down, discovering what matters to them in life, and then working out how they can determine the course of their lives to ensure that they fulfil their potential and have a happy and satisfying existence. The more that children and young people know about themselves, and the more they understand themselves, the greater the opportunities they will have to find happiness and contentment, and the more rewarding they will find their life. On one level it is a simple equation, although the reality and the path towards this self-fulfilment are much more complex.
At its core, this is all actually about what the child or teenager does for him or herself, and it is fundamentally important that we understand that it is what the child does by him or herself that really matters. Only they can reach their goal - no parent can do it for them, much as we might want to and be prepared to do so. 'Self-fulfilment' is precisely that - it is fulfilment 'of, by, for and with the self' - and no one can achieve this on behalf of anyone else. Our role as a parent is to enable our children to learn how to carve out their own fulfilling lives and to become fulfilled through their own endeavour.
A word of warning is appropriate here: as parents we naturally want the best for our children, and we do not want to see them 'waste' their lives, but if we dig a little deeper into our motivations, we can sometimes discover that we want our children - for any number of reasons - either to take a different path from our own, or to follow in our footsteps, and almost certainly to do better than we did in our lives. If we are not careful, we judge our children according to what we want, and not according to what they might want and need, and this is the real leap that parents need to take. Our children combine qualities, ideas and behaviours that may well be recognisable family traits, but they exist in a way that is entirely individual. This does not mean that we cannot do anything to support our children - it simply means that we have to be honest and self-aware as parents about what we want them to do and why. If we are not, we make their journey more difficult; by trying to fit them into a mould that doesn't work for them, we hamper their development and their own growth of understanding about themselves.
First of all, then, we need to understand how children and young adults learn to discover who they really are and what they want out of life, and in this there are various elements that we should bear in mind. Above all, children will learn from experiences. They will learn by what they see, do and try out and they will learn from their successes and they will learn from their failures. Children also learn from interaction with others. They learn when they talk to you about what you think and feel, and this will help them consider what they think and feel. They learn, too, from their peers and from other role-models, all the time comparing what other people think and feel with their thoughts and feelings, to come to a deeper understanding of themselves.
It is, moreover, your child's own motivations that will help propel him or her into choosing goals - short-term and long-term - in life. Identifying goals and working out how to get to them is a necessary step towards success in any area of life, and is often not done enough. Children benefit from goal-setting, and parents can help them do this. There are many excellent life coaching resources available to adults, from books to motivational tapes to courses, and while not all are suitable for children, some are most certainly of use, although in fact, their most valuable use is in helping you to understand how goal-setting takes place, so that you have this tool available to use with your children when you need it.
If you have an open dialogue with your children about what they feel, what they believe in, and what they might like to achieve in life, then you can help encourage them to set these goals. Remember, though, that word of warning - you cannot give them the motivation, nor can you set the goals for them! However, by knowing how it is done, by encouraging your child to think about his or her values and motivations, and by taking the opportunity to talk to them about it, you can help clarify their thoughts about what they want to achieve in life.
Beyond this, however, there is much more that parents can do to help their children along the path to self-fulfilment. The more opportunities your child has and the more exposure he or she has to different activities and events - within reason, so that time for self-discovery and exploration is there too - then the better able he or she will be to know what is 'out there'. Children learn from all sorts of people, and while you cannot choose their friendships or make them happen, you can certainly introduce your children to a wide range of people. Learning about others is a great way to come to a deeper understanding of yourself.
Going to see places and meet people allows children to expand their world-view and their understanding of their place in it. Doing things for other people, too, is an important part of it: from helping out with siblings at an early age to volunteering in the community in her late teens, your child will benefit from taking responsibility and learning how to deal with other people.
You can, too, facilitate your child's passion. This is a wonderful thing to be able to do, and it is what the parents of Olympians do - getting up early to take their child to swimming training, accompanying them to competitions, and finding the right people to train them. A passion comes from a creative spark inside a child, and lies at the heart of self-fulfilment - if a child's passion can be nurtured, it can grow into an amazing and fulfilling part of his or her life. Parents can go a long way to help develop their child's interests, within the bounds of what is practical, affordable and possible.
In all of this, of course, the key is time: time for sharing enthusiasm, time to discuss, and time to explore and reflect with your child. Time is one of the most precious gifts we can give our children - it allows space for discussion, for questions to emerge and to be answered, and for a re-affirmation in your child's eyes that you are there for them and that you love them unconditionally.
There is much that you can do to create opportunities for growth and self-fulfilment for your children. A fine line exists, of course, between this approach and attempting to over-structure a child's path through life, but it is possible to achieve a balance. Sometimes, though, as parents we are too close to the situation; we so desperately want our children to succeed that we cannot sometimes see what we need to do in order to help them discover their own inner motivations. It is a fine balance between active direction and an understanding that we have to sit back to allow children to find their own way.
This is where schools come in. I think the biggest opportunity a parent can provide for their child is education. A good school is much more than just lessons and preparation for qualifications - a good school will form the basis of friendship groups and will have tremendous opportunities for clubs, activities, trips and events - all of them providing the potential for self-awareness and the forming of character, of opinions, and of clarifying your child's understanding and motivations.
The education you offer your children is unquestionably one of the biggest opportunities you can provide for them, and I truly believe that schools and parents can work in partnership to ensure that each child makes the most out of his or her years before adulthood.
My vision of education is one in which the child is at the heart of everything that we do. Good schools give that time to individuals - and have a genuine understanding of, and care for, each individual. Children need to be stretched and supported as they need, not as we might pre-determine; it is their education, their life, and we are there to lead, guide, direct and provide the opportunities for them. When a girl enters my school, we put in place around her the people she needs; we see her potential, in whichever sphere it may be, and we help her to discover this and believe in it, so that she follows the path through school that best stretches her and supports her, aiming for gold in everything that she does.
Good schools continue and complement the work of parents, bringing specialist knowledge and a broader understanding of children, and providing some of the opportunities you only get in groups and communities. It is an amazing opportunity for the children and young people. And herein lies the real answer to how to coach your child to self-fulfilment: in a word, give your child these opportunities. Our children are our most precious assets - they are the future of humanity; on them rest the hopes of the world. Together, let us give them what they need to make the most of their time on this planet.
A gold medal in life awaits.