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Parenting: Challenge Your Child

Challenge, don't push, your child.

We live in a culture in which many parents feel tremendous pressure to "fast forward" their children's development. Unfortunately, in their efforts to speed up their children's development in school, sports, and the performing arts, parents are in danger of setting them up for failure and slowing rather than speeding up their development. By placing your children in achievement settings in which they are overmatched, you may be inadvertently inhibiting, rather than facilitating, their interest, achievement, and enjoyment in the activity.

An essential question to ask as parents is: Why would you put your children in situations in which they are overmatched? One reason may be that you have an inaccurate perception of their capabilities. Let's be honest here. Parents are decidedly poor judges of their children's abilities; most parents believe that their children are the brightest, most talented kids out there. You may use peer comparisons in your judgments. You may think, "My Stephanie is a better math student than Annie next door, so she's ready to take an advanced class." Your own ego and achievement needs can cause you to overmatch your children. Because of your emotional investment in your children, you may have difficulty accepting that your children are not gifted or special academically, athletically, or artistically. And just wanting the best for your children may push you to push them too hard, too fast, and too far.

Wanting to accelerate development to get "a leg up" in the race to the top is another common reason why parents overmatch their children. In our society where competition and achievement are so revered and rewarded, you may feel pressure to give your children any advantage by putting them on what you believe is the fast track to success. This urgency shows itself in the need to get your children involved in unnecessary private lessons, gifted programs, special tutoring, and other extracurricular activities. And don't even get me started on eight-year-old traveling sports teams!

Keeping Up With the Joneses

You may also feel the need to "keep up with the Joneses;" if you aren't doing as much as other parents, then you must be a bad parent and your child will suffer from your "neglect." Unfortunately, you may not realize that development can't be rushed; your children have to be allowed to develop at their own pace. Most experts believe that pushing children too quickly up the developmental ladder actually slows their progress by taking the fun out of their participation and reducing their motivation to learn. Also, by focusing your children's efforts on areas for which they are not prepared, you prevent them from focusing on areas for which they are ready and need to learn to be successful later on. The result is that they don't develop the foundation of experiences, knowledge, and skills necessary to get them ready for those later activities.

The noted University of Chicago psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi developed a simple and elegant theory of motivation and achievement that shows the danger of overmatching your children. He argues that if children's ability surpasses the demands of the activity, they will get bored and lose interest. This is common among bright students who are not adequately challenged in school. But if the demands of the activity far exceed your children's ability, that is, they are overmatched, they will feel frustrated in their efforts, likely fail badly, and, as a result, be fearful and resistant to future efforts.

How you react when your children inevitably do poorly because they are in over their heads may affect whether they are hurt by the experience. Instead of understanding that your children's difficulties are rightfully caused by being overmatched, you risk blaming them for their "failures." If you don't understand that your children are in over their heads, you might even develop, however unintentionally, the perception that your children are slow or incapable-rather than just normal-and then subtly convey this belief to them. Consistent exposure to circumstances in which your children feel that their ability is surpassed by the activity's demands will eventually make them feel incompetent. If these experiences are frequent, this sense of incompetence may result in lowered self-esteem which can generalize to all aspects of their lives.

Some time ago, I attended a junior tennis tournament that had attracted a number of fairly high-level players. It had been organized to ensure that every player would play at least three matches over two days. When I arrived at the tennis facility, I saw a father warming up his daughter on the court. It quickly became clear that this young player had not been playing long and was not very skilled. In her first match against the fourth seed, she lost 6-0, 6-0 and won only a handful of points. She came off the court in tears and, though her father was supportive and encouraging, it was obvious that he was disappointed too. Her other two matches followed a similar pattern: She didn't win a single game and won only a few points. After each match she was upset and, while the other girls talked or played cards with one another, she was off to the side with her father looking very sad. This girl was clearly overmatched and the tournament was obviously not a fun or motivating experience for her. Not surprisingly, I didn't see the girl at tournaments the remainder of the summer.

Challenge Your Child

Achievement is a process of small steps rather than big leaps. As a coach I worked with put it, "Success is a marathon, not a sprint. What matters is where you finish, not where you start." You should do everything you can to ensure that your children, foremost, have fun, which will encourage them to stay interested and motivated in the achievement activity. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the ideal scenario to accomplish this goal is for the demands of the achievement activity to slightly exceed your children's capabilities. This relationship challenges and motivates children by enabling them to see that if they push themselves a bit beyond what they believe themselves capable of and persevere in the face of those achievement demands, they will be successful.

You can play an essential role in this process by creating Csikszentmihalyi's ideal achievement scenarios for your children. First, have a realistic understanding of your children's capabilities. Second, have a realistic understanding of the demands of the achievement activity. For you to gain this information, become an informed consumer and advocate for your children. You can't be an expert in education, sports, and the arts. Yet that expertise is necessary to produce the ideal achievement situation that will nurture your children's development. So, seek out the best information to meet your children's needs and maximize their achievement experiences. Knowledgeable resources, such as teachers, instructors, coaches, and more experienced parents, can provide objective feedback about your children's capabilities and the appropriate level of an activity to help set up Csikszentmihalyi's ideal achievement scenario for your children.

It's Up To You

As the parents, you have the responsibility to create an environment in which this healthy relationship between your children's abilities and the activity's demands can develop. The following recommendations may be helpful:

  • Don't project your own achievement needs on your children. Let them find their own reasons to participate and give a strong effort;
  • Maintain a healthy perspective on why your children are involved in achievement activities: to have fun, learn skills, and prepare them for later life;
  • Don't be seduced by our toxic culture of achievement that causes you to feel anxious or inadequate if your children are not the best at something;
  • Don't allow yourself to do anything for your children out of pressure to be seen as a "good" parent; being a good parent means doing what is best for your children;
  • Get a life! If you have a life that is meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful, you won't become overinvested in your children's lives; and
  • LIGHTEN UP!! If you are positive, relaxed, and light about your children's efforts, so will they be.

And the irony is that by following these recommendations, not only will your children develop as fully and quickly as they are capable, but they will have more fun, be happier, and appreciate you more as well.

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