Does Your Child Feel Your Pressure?
I wonder a lot.
One of the things I wonder about is how to be a good parent. I know there are parenting "experts" out there. There are books to read and people to listen to and things to learn about. Some of these things are helpful, and some of these things have been helpful for me.
I'm pretty skeptical about experts in general, and parenting is one of the areas where I think it's very difficult to be an expert, at least when you talk about the challenge of scaling your expertise.
We are dealing with growing, changing, different individuals, who are slowly becoming aware of their own growth, changes, and differences, and responding accordingly. But also uniquely. There are "tricks" that will work in your own house, with one of your kids, that won't work in your own house with another one of your kids. In fact, the trick that worked last week with your child, may fail you this week.
Why? Who knows, but maybe it's all of the growing, changing, and new self-awareness that's happening inside of them. So any type of "this is how you do it" is built on a foundation of shifting sand, and cannot even approach a guarantee of working, no matter what expert or organization puts their name behind it.
It is unlike any other challenge I can think of in terms of the unique and ever changing thoughts, feelings, bodies, minds, and goals of the players involved.
There are some things I would consider to be universal teaching points.
Things like love, kindness, setting a good example, helping our children grow into the best version of themselves, and teaching our kids how to be self-sustaining, positive contributors to society, should probably be a part of all parenting.
But then again, everyone might not even agree with what I think should be universal, or maybe they have a different definition than I do about these things.
Parenting is tough, and I wonder how I can be good at it, I mean, really good at it.
And one of the things I've been wondering about lately is how to take our pressure off of our child, even when we aren't putting it there on purpose.
The last thing I want is to create an environment where my kids are looking over at me on the sidelines during their sports games looking for affirmation about their performance, or sweating during a test because they think I'll be disappointed in the grade they receive. Or feeling like they have to live up to some ideal (again, for me, other than some of the ones mentioned above that I relate to being a quality human) that is too heavy for their current stage of life.
My children, our children I think, need expectations. They need standards. They need things to strive towards and ideals to live by and something to strive for. They need to know that they can and should grow and improve and work.
But I don't want them to feel that as an unbearable burden coming from me. I don't want them to see my watchful eye as something that is crippling. They don't need to look over their shoulder to see if I'm examining their growth, deciding if it's fast enough or good enough. For me.
This wonder for me comes primarily from seeing this exist in many of the kids I've worked with over the years.
As a high school basketball coach, it was easy to spot the kid who was playing for their parent, and it was usually their father. Sometimes these kids didn't want to be there at all, and they were forced to struggle through the long practices, lectures from the coach, and extra wind sprints with no real motivation of their own other than an attempt to please their dad. Some of these kids were able to find some connection to their teammates and create some purpose for themselves, to make the experience meaningful in some way for themselves.
Other kids, sadly, weren't. And they just slogged through everything as best they could, hoping it satisfied the demands of their father, with everyone knowing that it never would.
Another group of these players were actually good players. They wanted to play. They just didn't want to constantly feel like they were playing for someone else. Again, namely, dad. You could see their talent and potential struggling beneath the weight of expectations.
We saw this in our college coaching as well. Young adults now, about to enter the world on their own, to stand on their own two feet, make their mark.
And yet, when it came to playing basketball, their fulfillment and their acceptance, came from the judgement handed down by dear ol' dad. Dads from the stands, who had no real coaching experience, and who hadn't spent a career studying, learning about, and practicing coaching, would levy all types of critiques and criticism towards the coaches and their daughters.
And the pressure mounted.
Another area I've seen this in is when I've trained kids one on one in basketball. After a few sessions, I generally feel like I've built up a good rapport with the kids I work with. After a few sessions, I've got a pretty good feel for how to work with the kid, how they are going to work, and what they need from me to grow as a player. I approach their sessions based on what they want to get out of our time, and what I think they need. And, as long as we are a good fit to work together, the results usually follow.
But for some of the kids I've worked with, a really strange thing happens sometimes when their parents show up. Sometimes it happens when their parents come to pick them up, or when their parents pop in to watch them work for a few minutes. The kids, some of them, tighten up. Their shot gets worse. Their performance suffers. You can see them buckling under the pressure.
I'm not talking about the "normal" feeling a kid might have of wanting to show his mom or dad that he/she is doing well or show them that they are getting better. There is a natural tendency in us to want to "show off" for certain people. Think back to when you were a kid and the cute girl or boy showed up at the game, the recital, or even just watched you during gym class. There is a natural energy that flows there that calls out for you to show up and stand out.
In some ways that's healthy. We want to show people that we care about that we can do it.
It's as if we are saying, "Watch what I can do."
What concerns me is the weight you can see and feel on these kids. It's frustrating to me, to see kids who have worked hard to develop good habits and to improve, buckle under the weight of the watchful eye of a parent, again, usually a dad.
It's as if they are saying, "Please don't watch, I don't want to mess up in front of you."
It's important to me, that I make sure I don't build that up in the relationships I have with my kids. I'm not exactly sure how to do that, but as I've written this, I've come up with some thoughts.
Decide What The Standard Is, And Measure Against It
At a teaching conference I attended last year, I heard something that should have been quite obvious. It's not something I should have had to have been told, but it was something I had never heard before and it was very informative to me. The presenter was talking about grading student work, and she said,
"Determine the standard that you are grading, and don't grade anything else."
Daaaaaaang. As teachers, we get this wrong a lot, but with good intention. We have a writing assignment on something like, The Life and Times of Abraham Lincoln. The focus is on research, and answering 4 specific questions or something like that. And then, we grade the kids on using the proper punctuation, commas, uppercase letters, spelling, and other things that have nothing to do with research or Abraham Lincoln. I know those other things are important, but they aren't what we told the kids we would be grading them on. Then, only a small part of the grade is actually based on the original assignment. And when the students get feedback on things other than what we originally agreed on, they can get confused, or frustrated.
We aren't measuring against the standard.
It's hard to do. Maybe my example here stinks. I don't know if I have teacher friends who read this, but I can hear them saying that those other things are writing standards and they should be focused on too and we can't just have kids writing crappy essays about Abraham Lincoln.
But we have to decide what we are measuring against, share that, and stick with it, and it can't be everything all of the time.
It's important for us as parents to do this. The situation, our kid's age, and our own personal beliefs may change over time, causing the standards to change too, and that's okay. But it shouldn't be fluid all of the time or within one experience. Our kids should know what standard they are going to be held to, we should help them work towards that standard, and we shouldn't change the rules on them without telling them.
What good is this? Let's stick with the sports example. If our measuring stick for our kids is that they play hard and they show respect to their teammates, coaches, and players (a good standard, I think), then that's what we should tell them, that's what our discussions should center on, and that's where we should hold them accountable. If they open the door for other things, like their skill level or their performance, then we can have those conversations. But for now, stick to the standard.
It creates certainty for your kids and it allows you to decide what really matters and helps you both get better at that thing or things, rather than just picking nits about everything you find that your kid should be doing better.
Set the standard and stick to it.
Find Something To Praise
Outside of the standard that you agreed on for this sport, or season, or moment, find something to praise. Let's be clear, I'm not a fan of the trophy for everyone philosophy. If the other team starts chanting "easy out" every time your kid gets in the on deck circle, and he can't hit the ball off of the stationary tee, I don't think the thing that we find to praise should be something about them going to the Major Leagues one day. In other words, our praise shouldn't be empty. At some point we'll have delusional kids or they'll catch on to the ruse and our trust may be broken. So, stick to things that will stick, but find something.
That way, when they come off the field, or bring home the bad grade that you know they worked hard on, or whatever their thing is, you can offer some encouragement. Then you don't have to be the judgmental mom or dad who is always finding things wrong, but they know that you are in their corner.
Again, this doesn't make you soft, or it doesn't have to make you soft. It's not empty praise. Maybe they don't deserve it after a particular game or in a particular situation. In that case, don't. Sometimes, they deserve a proverbial (or actual, depending on your parenting style) kick in the pants. And when they do, I think they should get that.
But as best as you can, try to find something to praise.
If You Must Coach, Coach Something, Not Everything
It's a different challenge to try and coach our kids, especially once they get to an age where they are competitive or getting more skilled. To coach our kids when they are younger is great, if we do it right, but as they grow into (or out of) their sport, or talent, whether that be music, or art, dance, or whatever, we may realize that they need more instruction than we can provide, or that they are ready to listen to someone else.
At this point, as much as we can, it's best to let the next guy or gal pick up the reigns and coach the skills. Certainly there are exceptions to this. One being the standard mentioned above. Those can always be coached. And I think if we do a good job of this early, we'll always have that opportunity with our kids. For me those will be things like attitude and effort.
Another exception would be the level of knowledge that you have about your child's sport.
But be careful not to lie to yourself here. Even if you played college athletics, 30 years ago, or you were the lead in The Fiddler on The Roof your senior year in front of a sold out crowd, it might be time to admit that some things have changed. The person who has been studying and practicing their craft might be more equipped to train your son or daughter at this point.
But that's for you to decide.
My first encouragement, is to tread respectfully into the coaching waters when it comes to your child.
So if you must coach (or remind, point out, encourage, or nag) focus on something, but not everything. Again, pick what's important to you, pick what you can speak on, or pick what your child can handle right now, and focus on that. When you start going down the everything path, nobody wins.
First of all, you won't realize you are doing it. You'll start with good intentions, and then end up slowly (or maybe not, depending on your personality) unloading on your child. Secondly, your child can't handle all of that, all at once. So you'll likely end up making very little impact on the things you are discussing, because it's just too much.
This is how the pressure begins to mount.
By the way, I know I'm getting heavy on the sports references, but this is 100% applicable to the life, school, friends, responsibility, etc. conversations you are having with your child.
You can't unroll the list from your pocket titled, "The Top 100 Things Wrong With Suzy's New Boyfriend" and expect your daughter to hear any of them. Depending on your daughter, somewhere around item number two on the list, the pressure is going to start to build.
So now what she is hearing, is that you hate Johnny, you don't trust her to make decisions, you don't like any of her friends, and maybe you don't really even like her.
Focus on what's important.
Something, but not everything.
Keep It Simple
I'll keep this one simple.
If you must coach (or talk, teach, implore, lecture, etc.) and you have made the wise decision to focus on something but not everything, make sure you keep your something simple.
Remember the standard you have set, and teach, coach, and parent around the standard. Simply.
Sometimes you need a lecture, and a long discussion. But mostly, it's little teaching moments sandwiched between school, dinner, playdates, bedtime, church, and who knows what else. Find ways to have short, memorable teaching points that you can share with your kids.
If we can do that consistently, our kids will start to remember what we say, and even repeat it themselves.
That's when you start to win.
Set the standard, then keep the reminders simple.
I think it's important that we are careful not to put the pressure on our kids, even on accident. Pay attention to how your kid responds to these things. If their body posture suddenly looks like someone just strapped a refrigerator to their back, or they look at you like you shot their dog after you offer some piece of coaching or parenting, maybe you start giving some consideration to how you can make some adjustments.
Maybe some of these things help. Maybe not.
I'm pulling for you,