Every parent wishes for their children to do well in life. In the growing up years it is natural for parents to look at how their kids are doing at school, and in their athletic and musical activities and other special interests in order to get a sense for whether or not they are on track. If they are engaged and doing well in their activities, parents feel a sense that all is going well. When this is the case, it is wise to stay the course. However, the reality is that few children ever stay locked on track in a constant upward trajectory. It is normal for academic, social, musical and athletic progress and performance to vary over time. This is frequently a function of the ever evolving emotional, cognitive, social and physical development that characterizes the childhood and adolescent years. It is quite typical for there to be periods of time in which children are flowing along nicely and other times when it feels as if the wheels have come off the cart. Parents can hardly look on passively during these times. Indeed, many questions arise when our children are struggling in school, in their sport or in their relationships with friends. These are times when attentive parents can see insecurity and self-doubts emerge, even if the child tries to cover them up or minimize them. The question is when and how should parents intervene in an effort to foster a growing sense of mastery in their child?
What then should parents do when their son or daughter is under-performing or otherwise preventing themselves from experiencing the satisfaction that comes from doing well at spelling, at reading, at sinking a free-throw, at hitting through the baseball and lashing a single to left field or mastering a piece of music? There is no pat answer and each intervention must be informed by the person your child is. Moreover whatever you do, you must be careful not to have too exclusive a focus on the outcome, whether it is to become a successful reader or free-throw shooter. I strongly encourage you to consider that the process of how you help your child to be more accomplished is at least as important as the outcome. It is through this process that we affirm children’s self-esteem while helping them move forward in his or her life.
The highly regarded cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget directed educators to reach children by teaching them subjects through the activities in which they already have an interest. If they like gymnastics, use it to teach them physics, a foreign language, and mathematics in addition to physical education; or if they like playing the piano, use it to teach them math, science, and color theory in addition to music theory. It is important to recognize that children are informing you of where they can be more easily accessed by virtue of the stuff in which they are already interested. The reason for this receptivity requires only common sense. Kids like to have fun and as long as you keep the fun coming they will remain open to what you have to say. Be creative, don’t be a hard-nosed “tiger mom or dad”. Consider watching or even join your child in playing their video game. You will be opening another window into their world.
Yes, but one could argue that life is not all about fun; that we gain little without learning to work hard. True, but we would be wise to take advantage of any area where we can help to keep it fun. The old football adage to “take what the defense gives you” is apropos here. Yes, but one could raise the question of how to help a child learn to do well if he or she is not so good at something in the first place? The fact is that some kids do not have the eye-hand coordination to confidently hit a baseball or to shoot a soccer ball on goal or the facility to quickly pick up a foreign language. In order to use these “difficult” areas as mediums through which your child can learn mastery, you need to find a way to make it fun. You need to make it a game and not a chore. You need to make it something to do that’s interesting and not a proving ground for the child’s self-esteem. You need to convey through your words and actions that it is not about winning, scoring, and dominating. It is not about the outcome. Winning is great, but if your kids learn how to work hard they would have learned a most important life lesson. Remember, kids have radar. They’ll only learn this if you really mean it.
If you help your kids to learn to how to work hard and if you can help your kids separate self-worth from performing, then you will be teaching them how to get out of their own way. Working hard and the mastery that is the byproduct of hard work can then be transferred to other areas of life. A child who becomes a more confident speller can become more relaxed swinging a bat, a child who learns to trust that he or she can sink a free through, can approach the Science Olympiad with more confidence, and on and on.
Remember the words of Thomas Jefferson when he said, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Many young people carry the irrational belief that the reason they are not good at something is because they simply as less than those who happen to be good at it. This is a serious concern because if this belief or others like it are left unchecked they will be carried into their adolescence and adulthood. The fundamental job of our role as parent, caregiver or coach is to instill hope and a can-do spirit into the children for whom we are responsible.
- Break down the means to accomplishing a goal into small manageable parts.
- Provide a structure, a routine, an agreed upon series of practice times in order to ensure you child’s success. The act of following through with a plan is a significant accomplishment in its own right.
- Instill hope and confidence by encouraging and offering constructive criticism bracketed by affirmative statements.
- Let your child quit midway through the completion of an activity or sport season.
- Give into to your child’s discomfort with learning to follow through at practicing something.
- Overemphasize the importance of achieving the long term goal.
Much of childhood and adolescence is spent exploring new territory and experimenting with different activities. Kids will naturally gravitate towards things of interest in a progressive sorting process that shapes their activities as they become their own person. While they will drop some sports or musical interests in favor of others along the way, we want them to feel increasingly confident. If they want to play lacrosse rather than soccer, that is fine provided they finished out their season before moving on. If they choose to drop playing the piano, we want that to happen only after finishing a series of lessons and practice sessions so that their decision is informed by the self-advocacy of choice, not a quitter mentality. As they continue to make choices they can do so with an increased sense of mastery and confidence.