Let us begin with a story of my own parenting fail. My daughter was two years old when I signed her up for a gymnastics class because she was demonstrating many signs of interest in the activity. I was so excited to watch her delight in learning a new skill. Readers, I confess that my enthusiasm was not as carefully masked as I might advise.
With every skilled move on the bars and somersault on the mat I cheered her on with unbridled glee. Of course when she was resistant to try an activity, my disappointment quickly burst through my “good parent” filter. It finally hit me when the instructor pulled me aside to discuss Lucille’s talent that I had completely lost touch with my role as a parent. Somewhere among my private thoughts about how of course Lucille was so talented, her great-grandfather was an accomplished gymnast, the instructor began reviewing how to proceed into the competitive gymnastics arena…. practice every day, private instruction, she went on. I finally snapped out of my competitive parenting bubble and put the brakes on… fast!
Parenting to win is the Achilles heel of parenting. I would be surprised to find a parent who is above comparing their children to others and pushing and pressuring them beyond what is appropriate. The truth is, our comparisons and pressuring has everything to do with us and our own inadequacies and very little to do with our children. We want our children to be the best and win because we feel good when they do. Their successes quickly become ours, as do their failures.
The roots of why we feel jubilant when our children succeed stems from the less attractive parts of our own character, but also from love. It is a story of love run afoul. We love our children so deeply that we want to ensure that they do well in life and doing well in life is often equated to winning or being the best. Although our logical side might tell us that our children are responsible for their own behavior and future, our emotional self is terrified that their failures are, in fact, our fault. This fear of becoming a failure, by way of parenting, leads us to act in rather unsightly ways and become the very type of parent that we were trying so desperately to avoid.
Before you bow out and declare yourself above falling victim to this particular ill, consider that parenting to win is more common in “child-centered” homes, where it disguises itself in a cloak of child-friendly and educational activities geared towards making our children the “best and the brightest” and reveals it’s malignant self only to our children who unfairly bear the brunt of our parenting anxieties.
Before you get too down on yourself and retire to your couch to watch a “Honey Boo Boo” episode to console your insecurities about your own parenting, be reminded by my story that I am right there with you Reader! How can we move past parenting to win and move towards a healthier type of parenting that puts our children’s needs before our own?
Let’s be reminded, together, of what children need from us and what other explosions of passion need to be sidelined for our children’s sake and for our own.
1) Unconditional Love: Babies, children, teens and adults all need to know that they are loved, all the time, without reason, restriction or condition. Children have an innate need to love and be loved and we, as parents, are their primary source of love. If we cannot love our children unconditionally, then who will? In spite of failure or success, children need to know that they are loved because they are our children and not because of anything they do to earn that love. Our love is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
2) “You Did It!”: Children need to be proud of what they did because they did it. They don’t need to be told constantly that they did a good job, according to another individual, but rather that they did their job. It is important for children to learn to self-assess and self-motivate. Constantly offering our assessment of their effort and works, whether positive or negative, can lead to insecurity and a need for constant external approval. Instead of saying, “You were amazing!” a parent can say, “I saw you jump higher than you ever have!”. Focus on restating the specifics of what your child does and let them make the judgment about their accomplishment or failure.
3) Being the Best v. Trying their Best: Which of the aforementioned standards do you want to be held to at work and at home? Our children, like us, want to know that their best effort is all that is expected of them. Attending an Ivy League or being so well connected and accomplished that you can name drop at a cocktail party does not lead to happiness. Children who learn from an early age to try their best and feel satisfied by their own efforts gain important experiences that can lead them to live a more satisfying life. Children who are taught to be the best are led astray into an unsatisfying life as one can rarely be the absolute best at anything.
4) It is OK to Fail: Children need to know that failure is an option. To clarify, I do not applaud mediocrity, rather learning from one’s mistakes. When a child fails, state (without judgment) what you saw happen. Then state, “You can try again”. Ask, “What can you do differently next time?”. Everyone fails, but truly successful children know what to do when it happens. Teach your children that they don’t have to be afraid to fail because it is an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Modeling how to accept and learn from your own failures is one of the best ways to teach your children this skill.
5) It is Important to Try New Things: A frustrating part of parenting that often brings our darker side to light is when our children are resistant to trying new things. We cajole our children to eat their veggies, try the potty or just hit the ball… one time… please, for Mommy? Children need to learn to try new things, but they also need more time than adults (typically) to warm up to the idea of branching out. If your child is resistant to trying a new skill, food or activity, do not push them. Demonstrate the novelty with a smile, but let them choose to branch out. Children can sense pressure a mile away. No need to remind them what “big kids” or their friends are already finding easy. This part of parenting takes a bit of acting and I am the first to admit that I am not a Thespian. Take off that look that you give (yes…take look) when your child puts up a fight and put on your calm, cool and collected face. “Oh, do you not want to try that? I didn’t notice. Maybe next time.”