We all like to think of our children as being the best: the cleverest, healthiest, most talented and beautiful kid in the world. Even when we know consciously they are only human, and we can see their flaws and foibles, we still see them with a rosy glow.
For us as adults, it’s easier to accept that our children can’t really be best at everything. But much harder for children when they first realize that there are some things they just aren’t good at.
Kids naturally imagine glittering futures for themselves: the prima ballerina, the sports star, the pop idol. This is all normal and healthy, and mostly they are content to keep their fantasies as fantasies. But what do you do when they hold onto a dream, only for it to slowly dawn on them it will never happen?
Sadly this is more likely to be the case than not. Only a tiny minority will rise to the very top. At my primary school, there was a clutch of very talented football players (not including me, I hasten to add.) The school team regularly won all the local trophies. But of all those who attended the school in the seven years I was there, the very best player of all later played only semi-professionally for a non-league team. Not one hit the big time.
Activities for younger children usually focus on inclusion and developing confidence; what’s sometimes derided as the “all must have prizes” approach. If the children are to develop though at some point competition will enter the equation, and the less talented will be left on the bench or in the chorus. What can we as parents do to help when reality bites?
The most important thing, all experts agree, is also the hardest thing. When we see the hurt on their faces, we feel their pain too and want to make it go away. But we have to let our children experience sadness and disappointment.
“It’s tough to watch kids struggle with hurt feelings or anxiety,” says Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do. “But, kids need practice and first-hand experience tolerating discomfort. Mentally strong parents provide their kids with the support and help they need coping with pain so their kids can gain confidence in their ability to deal with whatever hardships life throws their way.”
She also cautions against feeling responsible for our children’s emotions.
“It can be tempting to cheer your kids up when they’re sad or calm them down when they’re angry. But, regulating your kids’ emotions for them prevents them from gaining social and emotional skills.”
“Your child is going to fail at some things,” she says. “That’s simply a fact of life. Once you’ve accepted that you can’t prevent failures and setbacks, you can let go of trying to control everything. Trying to make everything go perfectly for your kids is exhausting. But worse, you’re not doing them any favors by helping them avoid mistakes.”
Talent show judge Simon Cowell, when booed for criticizing out-of-tune singers, insists that he’s actually doing them a favor, by stopping them wasting their time in a hopeless cause. But we don’t want to talk to our kids the way he talks to people, so what can we say instead?
Sharon Martin recommends talking about mistakes and failures as learning opportunities and sharing stories of your own disappointments.
“Have honest, age-appropriate, conversations about your own struggles and stories of falling down and getting back up again,” she says. “This is concrete evidence that everyone makes mistakes and can be highly motivating for children. Being honest and vulnerable also builds a deeper connection between you and your child.”
Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist writing for kidsinthehouse.com, suggests parents should think carefully before withdrawing the child from the activity.
“I think what’s really important, whether we are good or not good at something, is that if we are finding meaning if we’re finding enjoyment, if we’re finding a way to find out who we are, it’s fine. (In that case), support the child to stay with it. However, if the child is miserable, it’s probably not a great fit. Maybe there’s a different sport, maybe there’s a different activity.”
Ultimately discovering our limitations is a rite of passage, part of the human experience. Nobody can be good at everything, but all of our children are wonderful and unique. With our love and support, they will find their path to be all that they can be.
Photo: Benedic Belen, via Flickr