Tips for Parents: The Zen Valedictorian: A Parent's Guide to Helping Your Child Stand Out Without Burning Out
Newport, C.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Cal Newport. He discusses philosophical issues and issues related to reducing student stress.

On each day of the seminar, we tackled a different topic related to our theme. During the first two days we kept our heads in the clouds and discussed some knotty philosophical issues, such as the necessity of sustainable success for a happy life, and the reality of what actually makes a student seem impressive. Over the next three days we then returned to earth and addressed more tactical issues related to reducing student stress, from time management to focus.

In more detail, on day one we talked about the importance of sustainable success, the idea that being successful is a good goal, but only if you can do so while maintaining a life that is engaging and enjoyable to live.

Is sustainable success possible? Yes. But it requires that you rethink what it takes to be impressive as a student. On day two we tackled this idea. Whereas most students believe that the only way to stand out is to do lots of hard things, we instead read about Zen Valedictorians who become stars by doing a small number things very well.

On day three we moved from philosophical to tactical, and discussed the importance of helping your child develop his or her focus muscles. The ability to work without distraction is key to preventing homework from conquering your life.

On day four we moved on to time management and scheduling, and discussed techniques for helping your child develop a sense of what's due when, and what strategy will get it done in time.

We concluded, on day five, with a discussion of study skills, noting that the most important habit to develop is a constant questioning of how you are studying and why you think this is the best way.

Below is a summary of the specific tips I gave parents on each of these days...

Tips for Helping Your Child Shift to a Sustainable Success Mindset

I suggest parents adopt the same strategy I use in my student advising: make it clear that the only type of achievement that you're proud of is achievement that was earned in a sustainable manner. Laud the smart study schedule that allowed your child to finishing studying for a major exam a day in advance. But treat an 'A' earned from an all-nighter equivalent to a 'C' earned by lack of studying: both are lazy.

This requires a shift in focus from results to strategy. When a student I advise panics about a bad grade, my reaction is never: “Did you study enough?” It is, instead: “Clearly there are some kinks in your study strategies that need to be worked out. Why don't you tell what your preparation philosophy was for this test, and where you think it fell short.”

Notice, the knee-jerk reaction to this line of questioning is usually defensive, something along the lines of: “I studied during every available hour, unless I stopped sleeping altogether I don't what else I could have done!” At this point, I always return to specifics: “The word 'study' is meaningless to me,” I say. “Talk to me about specifics. What specific actions and what specific schedule did you use? Why? And where could it be improved?”

Along these same lines, stress should be confronted as a problem to fix. I've seen parents treat late night studying as a near equivalent to rule breaking. Again, the typical reaction from the student to such chastising is defensive, usually a claim that studying late at night is the only way to handle their course load. In this situation, these same parents react by saying that if that's the case, then they either have to come up with a better study strategy or reduce the course load: but the late nights are not acceptable. I applaud this. It makes crystal clear the point that sustainable success is the only success worth obtaining.

And of course, above all, the more you emphasize the idea of sustainable success as the ultimate goal to achieve, the more this notion is internalized. I'm always surprised by how much the students I advise pick up from the way their parents informally chat about what is impressive and why.

Tips for Helping Your Child Rethink What Makes a Student Impressive

I had a conversation, this past fall, with the father of a high school junior. He had read my most recent book, and was pleased that his daughter had been following the do less, do better philosophy. Her focus on a single pursuit, politics, was starting to lead to really interesting opportunities, including a coveted internship with a congresswoman.

But then her scheduled started to slip.

Teachers, noticing that this was a student who got things done, started to recruit her for other activities. She ended up becoming photo editor for the yearbook, an activity that sapped time away from her political work. She had begun to slide backwards from being a star and into the overcrowded pool of diligent kids diligently balancing lots of things.

This father was worried about intervening because his daughter, caught up in the culture of more is better at her school, felt like the additional activities were a good idea.

I told him that this was exactly the type of situation where he should step in. The idea of doing a small number of things feels unnatural to many students. By setting a standard that commitments should be sparse and chosen with care, you can help your child navigate this tricky area.

Tips for Helping Your Child Focus

Parents can help train their children's focus. The earlier you start, the better. Remember, this is a muscle to be developed.

The most effective method I've encountered is to enforce pre-designated work blocks, of a well-defined duration, during which there is no phone or Internet allowed. I recommend taking the phone and disconnecting the modem. (I know parents who actually walk around the house with the modem cable in their pocket during these periods.)

Two words of warning:

First, almost without exception, every parent who tries this tactic is met with the following reaction from their child: “I need the Internet in order to do my homework.”

This is almost always nonsense. Tell them to get whatever information they need from the Internet before the distraction-free work block. If they have to submit an assignment online, they can do that after the block.

Second, you have to start small. When I work with college students to increase their focus, I recommend, at first, that they don't try to go more than 30 minutes without a break. My general rule is to add 15 minutes every two weeks. This sounds slow to an adult ear, but its actually around the maximum rate at which your child's focus ability can grow.

Tips for Helping Your Child with Time Management and Scheduling

As a parent, what can you do, beyond just recommending strategies like the ones above, to help instill a sense of time management in your child?

One strategy that works well is what I call the calendar method. (This method is better suited for younger students. In an ideal world, this method is deployed early in a student's secondary school career, so that by their upperclassman years they can move on the type of the individual strategies mentioned in the reading.)

The method works as follows: keep a calendar in a public place in the house, such as on the fridge. Have a set time, each day, when you discuss the calendar with your child. (For example, over breakfast, or right before dinner.)

During this discussion do three things:

  1. Write any new deadlines, obligations, or test dates on the calendar.
  2. Look ahead two weeks. If there are any deadlines or test dates on this future date, work with your child to make a plan for when he or she is going to do the corresponding work. Put these work blocks on the calendar.
  3. See what work blocks have been scheduled over the next couple of days, to remind your child of what he or she should be doing.

This method enforces the habit of seeing what's coming up and then making a plan for facing it. Furthermore, because you review these plans together, a sense of accountability is introduced. If your child skips a planned work block, you're going to know it.

Tips for Helping Your Child Improve Study Skills

Your goal as a parent is not to teach your child the best study habits, but instead to teach him or her the mindset that says study habits need to be thoughtfully constructed and continually improved.

There are two strategies that help this effort.

The first, as I alluded to in the first day of our discussion, is to emphasize strategy: always ask “how did you study?”; never “how long?”.

Along these same lines, push for explanations: “Why do you think this is a good way to study? What might work even better?”

Students don't naturally think this way. They require a push.

The second strategy is to expose your child to a diversity of different study tactics. Again, the goal here is to emphasize that there's more than one way to tackle academic work, not necessarily to identify the best way.

A good place to start is the archives of my blog: I have hundreds of articles and case studies dedicated to the art of studying. For high school students, I also dedicate a large section in my most recent book to studying effectively at the high school level, and for college students, my first two books tackle these same issues. (See:

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