By Falon Canham, Blogger and Preschool/Gymnastics Instructor
Children are the most precious and valuable treasures to their parents. They are protected from harm at all costs. Physically protecting children is the easy part; keeping them fed, clothed, sheltered, and safe. But I’d like to touch on something I believe is more difficult than physical protection, and many parents miss: emotional protection.
The reason this is so much harder is because, even with the best of intentions, things adults do and say can be unknowingly harmful or traumatizing to our children; a blind spot, so to speak.
Countless facets of unintentional emotional harm exist, but the one that I see almost every day as a sports coach, is pressure. A vast majority of parents are putting too much pressure on their children to perform exceptionally well in sports, for numerous reasons. In my experience, the pressure comes in three main ways: direct comparison, subjective praise, and vicarious living.
To explain the first type of pressure, “Direct Comparison,” I’d like to bring to mind the quote, “comparison is the thief of joy.” Some parents look at how other children are performing, then look at their own child and say things like, “Look at them! Why don’t you do it like that?” or “So-and-so won because they worked harder than you.”
Even if those things are true, saying this to your children only makes them compare themselves to others and not focus on their own progress. Some parents wear their comparison on their face. You know the look. The look of disappointment, of frustration. The look that sometimes says more than words.
I’ve witnessed this look on many a parent.
Comparing your child to others not only steals their joy, but yours as well. You are not allowing yourself to enjoy watching your child grow and excel individually. This pressure can cause feelings of insecurity, diminishing passion, and self-doubt.
To avoid this pitfall, try encouraging your children with positivity. For example, “If you continue to work hard, you will keep improving.” This type of phrase eliminates comparison, and acknowledges the hard work your child has already demonstrated.
The second way parents pressure their children, is by only communicating praise in certain situations. For example, only applauding your children when they win 1st place, but not when they place 2nd. Or simply applauding their accomplishments while ignoring their efforts. Congratulations, you’ve now taught your child that it doesn’t matter how hard they try, the only thing that matters is succeeding and winning.
I once coached a 6 year old gymnast (we’ll call her Emma), whose parents were never happy with her performance at competitions. At the final competition of the year, she surpassed her personal best scores, but still didn’t win first place. Instead of being overjoyed at her massive improvement, mom gave her ‘the look,’ and squeezed out a begrudging “Good job.” Let me reiterate, Emma was 6 years old. The very real effect this kind of pressure had on Emma was displayed at every single practice. She was the most self-critical 6 year old I have ever met; constantly saying things like, “I’m terrible at this,” “I can’t do it,” or “you don’t have to tell me, I know that was bad.” Not a day went by that she didn’t cry over her inability to learn something new, on the first try, perfectly.
Perfection is an impossible standard, and if you hold your children to it, they will always fall short. As a result, you are left feeling disappointed and frustrated, causing your children to feel perpetually insufficient, and even lose all passion for whatever activity.
Finally, some parents try to live vicariously through their children. This may be the biggest blind spot in existence on the subject of pressuring your kids. What I’ve found, is that many people played a specific sport throughout their youth, and want to push that same sport or athleticism on their own children. Or on the other hand, they were not athletic at all as a child, and were possibly teased, bullied, or made to feel worthless as a result. These parents have unspoken (and sometimes spoken!) personal goals for their children; whether it’s to get a college scholarship, play for the NFL, or become an Olympian. Or sometimes simply to brag to other parents about how talented their child is in a particular sport.
If you are this type of parent, I have two words for you: Stop it!
Your children’s performance, abilities, and natural talents have nothing to do with YOU. They are a unique gift from the creator of the universe, and your only job is to nurture these gifts. If you are having difficulty in this area, take some time to do a little soul searching, and figure out what it is you need to let go of so that your children can excel in something they are passionate about.
Comparing children to others is damaging and unfair. It inadvertently creates long-lasting feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, instead of a loving and supportive bond between parent and child. Only praising winning and perfection will lead to a child believing they will never be good enough, and they will lose all passion for something they might otherwise love.
When children are forced to participate in something that is not a natural talent of theirs, or isn’t something they have an innate passion for, their true self is being ignored. Instead of letting them be themselves, and fostering their unique gifts, they are being forced to be something that they are not.
These rules do not only apply to sports, but other areas of life as well, whether it be academics, arts, relationships, behavior, etc. We live in a society that preaches, “just be yourself,” but then are not creating the space for our children to do that. The solution is simple: let your children shine uniquely, praise individual achievement, nurture their passions and talents, and get out of the way.
Falon Canham, Preschool/Gymnastics Instructor
Falon started gymnastics at age 4, and started competing at age 10. She competed up to level 9 and placed top 5 at level 9 Regionals! She started coaching at age 16 and has been coaching ever since! Check out Falon’s Blog