What’s The Parents’ Role In The Pressure Our Kids Feel To Be Perfect?
Over the course of the last several decades, a parenting shift has occurred.
Throughout time, most parents would agree that their greatest desire is to raise happy and healthy children. But more recently, bubbling up beneath these two more noble desires, is a more insidious one. One that has become so important, that parents are putting happy and healthy at great risk by making this their priority: superiority.
Superior. Adj. To be better, greater, higher, excellent.
School, sports, extracurriculars, everything a child does now, they must be superior. This ‘superiority’ complex has arisen because no longer can a child do an activity or have a passion for something unless it’s a means to an end, a college scholarship, easier entrance to a top school or at the very least, Facebook bragging rights. Whether intentional or not, parents have an overwhelming misguided focus that somehow if we help our children discover a passion, and help them become great at it, that this will be their path to happiness and success. We have abandoned the idea that playing a sport, learning an instrument or a flair for art can have intrinsic benefits, like pure enjoyment or a needed distraction from the normal stresses of life. So we pour money, time, and put a lot of pressure on our kids in order to master all that they do, and only if they are superior and thereby masters, only then do we consider it to have worth.
To fully understand why this change occurred, let’s reflect back at how things used to be when most of us grew up. We were all pretty much free-range kids with few scheduled events and parents who rarely watched our silly neighborhood games or pickup sports in the cul-de-sac. My childhood athletic career was a pretty typical one for a kid in the 1970’s. I played basketball in the fall, volleyball in the winter and ran track in the spring. While I may have been identified as a strong athlete early on, my parents never considered making me give up any of the sports and definitely didn’t overthink or get too involved in my extracurricular pursuits. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, that I realized I definitely wanted to pursue playing volleyball in college. My parents’ lack of focused interest in my activities allowed me to explore everything and come to my own discovery about what I wanted.
This is not the experience most parents have today. My friend Julie is raising four children and says the pressure she feels to help each of her children figure out which sport(s) they want to play, is tremendous. They are twelve, ten, nine and seven. She says, “Really? They have to pick only one already? Her youngest son is playing in a rec baseball league in an affluent area in Southern California, and there is a seven-year-old boy who hasn’t made the cut two years in a row. Seven. In a rec league! At seven it’s nearly impossible to determine what kind of athlete you will become later in life.
Gone is the day where the parenting motto was “Try everything.” As a society, we’ve become obsessed with being superior and the outcome of winning, which translates to specializing early and pressing kids to over-train and become mini-adults approaching sports like a job. This obsession has taken over in all aspects of our lives. Winning by getting into the best school. Winning by getting on the top team. And winning by hoisting the championship trophy or the MVP award no matter the age. Be it in the classroom or the gym, we’ve become obsessed with focusing our time, energy and resources to getting immediate results to be superior right now. The message we send to the world is, “Look at us. We are doing so good. We are better than you.” While inside, most parents feel quite the opposite, and they are looking for ‘proof’ they are good parents.
Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to win. Learning how to be competitive in a dog-eat-dog world is a key life skill. That said, this trickle down of specializing early and focusing on winning and being superior is causing pressure to build at younger and younger ages for all children. The effect of this: an epidemic of stress, anxiety, depression and suicide in young people, all of which is increasing at alarming rates. Ask almost any teenager how they’re feeling and their top response is ‘stressed.’ Recent studies indicate that as many as one in five teens suffers from clinical depression.
So, what do we do about it? Here is a recent article focused on helping your child cope with the pressures of being perfect.
But we also need to go to the root of the problem, or at least part of it. And that starts at home, with us parents. Here are eight things you can do today to help put the focus back on healthy and happy kids, not perfect ones.
1) Stop promoting it. To your children, at school, and on the sidelines. It’s amazing the power one parent can have on the rest of a group, especially if it’s done with sincerity and openness, not judgement. Openly talk about caring for the mental and physical state of your children and applying the growth mindset. That getting into Stanford or making the all-star team really aren’t that important in the big scheme of life. David Epstein, the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World, says the youth sports model is set up to create amazing 14/15-year-old athletes, with little regard for long-term health or success. Don’t sit quiet on this knowledge, talk about it openly and effect change in your peer groups and with your children. Share your thoughts when appropriate about skipping the ‘elite’ camp to give your child downtime or passing up on the test prep because you know your child will do fine wherever they end up going to college. Plant seeds with other parents that not always pushing and pressing is actually ok.
2) Attend a high school reunion. What? Yes, that’s right. Do you remember the geeky kid who sat in the back in math class and never had much to say? Well, after high school he went to the local college and discovered a passion he never knew he had and made a name for himself. And guess what, his fortunes followed. And he grew six inches and is pretty cute now! Yes, that’s right, we are all slowly growing and evolving. Your child is JUST getting started. Just because he’s in the lower math or strikes out every time he is up to bat does not mean he won’t figure it out. Patience, grasshopper. We are mere observers of their amazing evolutions.
3) Resist the urge to play the “my kid is better than your kid” game. We all know someone who will take every opportunity they get to tell you about how talented, bright, athletic and gifted their child is. “We had to move our daughter to the league that practices three hours away. The competition just isn’t good enough for her here.” While it is tempting to want to either throw up in your mouth a little or give a solid retort that you’re so happy with the league your child is playing in now, remember, each child is different. And each journey is different. And while this may be the right fit for them, just smile, nod, and walk away. Their need for you to know how gifted their child is, has ZERO to do with you.
4) Focus on the three F’s. For any child, playing any sport, under the age of eleven or twelve, focus on these three things: friends, fun, and fundamentals. The most important thing that can be happening in the pre-teen years is that they are having fun, they are building curiosity about how they can improve (which comes through fun), and they are making friends. If you see your child really grabbing onto this and asking for more, then you can start to consider how you can challenge him as he hits middle school. Don’t get caught up in the game of needing to be on the top team, driving an hour each way to practice at age eight because that’s where the best coach is. When they are young, find a coach who teaches good fundamentals and focuses on building team and individual skills. Success can be gauged by the smiles on their faces.
5) Trust your child. If you watch her body language and listen to what she’s telling you, you’ll know if she’s enjoying her sport and is curious about getting better. If she doesn’t want to go to practice, complains about the coach, and never works on her sport outside of practice, these are all indicators that this might not be the right fit for her. While she is young, try lots of different sports and activities, not all of them need to be competitive. Rock-climbing or mountain biking can be great sports for kids who just don’t like to compete on a field of play.
6) Build in some “slack in the system.” In Lisa Damour’s 2019 best-selling book, Under Pressure, Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, she encourages parents to find ways to add back in downtime. When everyone is going 110% at all times, there are going to be break-downs, meltdowns and stress, which lead to anxiety and opting out. Don’t buy into over-scheduling your child just because everyone else appears to be doing the same. This comes back to trusting your child’s needs and making sure she has mandatory unscheduled time. Even if it leads to boredom.
7) Limit social media consumption. This goes for both you and your child. The more time we spend scrolling, mindlessly looking at the amazing accomplishments that everyone else’s children seem to be having, the more we start to feel like we aren’t keeping up. The fact of the matter is, you are running your own race. Only you and your child set your pace and only you and your child can decide the speed, distance and tempo that’s right for you. Not worrying about what the Joneses are doing or who they even are is the best race you can run. Talk with your son about the progress he has made, “Remember last year, you couldn’t even get the ball to the basket? And this year, you’ve made five free throws!” Progression vs. perfection.
8) Know when it’s time to pivot. Sometimes our kids get to be in control of this choice, but sometimes it’s handed to them. When your son gets cut from varsity water polo his senior year, after having played for the previous six, it’s devastating for you both. But remember, no matter how long he’s been playing, this is his journey and allowing him to go through this moment of pain will also become the greatest gift as he emerges out the other side knowing he’s capable of handling it and so much more. Competence builds confidence. Resist the urge to fix it for him. Don’t do anything like call the coach or yell to no one in particular, “We’ll transfer schools!” Ask him what he wants and how he wants to handle it. He can do hard things and it’s better for him to go through a few of these difficult times while he is still living at home because when he leaves for college, the next time things don’t go his way, he’ll know intuitively he can handle it. He’s overcome obstacles before, he’s going to be just fine.
Kids will still get messages from their peers and from the media, but if you are their rock at home, reinforcing the message that it’s OK to NOT be perfect and that it’s OK to slow down and enjoy the process and evolve, you can help them to be more balanced and happy. Stop force-feeding them the wrong and dangerous message that they better get on the high-speed train going nowhere or all of life’s riches will pass them by; instead preach balance, fulfillment, and finding joy.
Kirsten is currently a motivational speaker, writer and Peak Performance Coach. She is the co-host of the #RaisingAthletes Podcast with Kirsten Jones & Susie Walton on iTunes. Kirsten and her husband are currently raising three teenage athletes in Los Angeles. More from Kirsten at Kirstenjonesinc.com