A recent discussion with friends raised the question as to whether the current generation of children are over protected by their Gen X parents? The criticism being that in protecting children from failure and praising them for every action (deserved or not) they are in fact making them ill-equipped for later in life when the reality of the ‘real world’ kicks in. Parenting effectively can certainly feel something of a balancing act that we don’t always get right. There is no doubt that the intentions of most parents are to give their children opportunities to experience life in a positive, rewarding and enriching way, we do need to be careful however that our intentions don’t in fact harm our children in the short and long term.
There are two parenting styles that don’t do our children (or their parents) any favors:
The helicopter parent – hovers on the periphery of their child’s activities and at the slightest hint of disappointment or disapproval being directed their way, the parent swoops in and attempts to rectify the situation. This may include telling the child they were wronged (“the judge is hopeless, you were clearly the best”); manipulating behind the scenes (organizing for the child to get another opportunity when that is outside the scope of the rules or what is fair); or giving the child feedback that is positive, yet unwarranted or undeserved.
The lawn mower parent – spends their time smoothing the path of life for the child, pre-empting what may go wrong and fixing it long before the child comes anywhere near it. Such as speaking up for the child (for example to a teacher), when the child really needs to take that responsibility. Often the child will be ‘protected’ without even knowing what has happened in the background.
So if these are the approaches in parenting that we need to avoid, what is the preferred way for us to speak to our children?
The way we understand and subsequently explain our world is known as our causal attributions. It is these attributions that result in an emotional response and drives our subsequent behaviour. Broadly, the explanations of our behaviour will fall into one of four categories: ability, effort, task difficulty and luck.
Ability is a characteristic that can certainly change, but may do so at a relatively slow pace. The difficulty of a task will vary according to who we compete with and the situations we are placed in. And luck, even when considered the combination of preparation meeting opportunity, is at times exactly that, luck.
What then of effort? Well effort is within our control. We decide the intensity with which we engage with an activity. We decide whether our effort will be high or low. And in a world where people frequently struggle when life feels out of control and unpredictable, effort is our best shot at feeling like we are making a difference.
So when offering feedback and encouragement to our children, this distinction is important to remember. Our children can not on any given day do too much to drastically change their ability, they can however completely control their level of effort. So with your feedback, encourage and recognize effort over ability. Certainly it is a great moment when children demonstrate success and mastery within their sport or academic endeavors; however self-esteem is best encouraged and enhanced when effort is acknowledged.
The important point to remember in setting goals, and setting out to achieve, and trialling new things is that with that effort invariably comes some level of disappointment. Whilst many would react to using the term ‘failure’, the reality is that not achieving our intended goal can bring about some level of disappointment. And in building our resilience, this is the most important part! When we fall down, when we ‘fail’ we have an incredible opportunity to reflect on why it didn’t work and what we can do to be more successful next time. As parents our role is usually not to make it all better and make the hurt go away, but rather to be the soft place to land so that our children can dust themselves off and have another go. We only learn from our mistakes and if we deprive our children from this opportunity, we are not helping them in the long term.
The evidence is clear that in the long term, a healthy self-esteem facilitates performance. So encourage your children to give their all, to strive for their personal best and let them make mistakes. Through their best efforts, this is their best opportunity.