As Alfred said to young Master Bruce Wayne, “Why do we fall?” To which Bruce replied, “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

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 Imagewhat 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.

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When silver isn’t good enough ……

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I have been interested over the previous week to see the media reaction to Australia’s apparent ‘disappointing’ performances thus far at the Olympics. From the 4x100m relay in the swimming, the Opals loss to France in the basketball and through swimmer Emily Seebohm’s tears that she hoped her silver medal hadn’t ‘disappointed’ the country.

The challenge and expectations placed upon our Olympic athletes are enormous.  The reality is that for the approximately 10,500 athletes competing in London there are a total of 906 medals on offer.  The figures determining any individual’s likelihood of success are staggering.  With approximately 6.675 billion people in the world, the odds of being an Olympic athlete are 1:636,000 and the chances of gaining an Olympic gold is 1:22,000,000.

Our Olympic athletes devote years of their lives, often on meager wages (or the generosity of their families) to live the olympic dream.  Whilst we encourage our athletes to live ‘balanced lives’, the reality is that 4+ hours of daily training + rehabilitation commitments such as physiotherapy, massage, doctors, psychologists, dietitians + meetings with coaches and commitments with sponsors leaves very little room for work, family and relaxation.  The notion of the elite athlete having a balanced life is for most a myth.

Australians love their sport.  Of this, there is no doubt.  Our athletes are lauded as heroes in ways that our scientists, academics, and cultural elite can only dream.  In elevating our athletes to such a high pedestal, the fall when it comes can be hard.

Any wonder then that within seconds of finishing their Olympic event, attaining a result that does not meet their expectations and with cameras and most of the world watching, that some of our athletes react in ways that perhaps even they can’t anticipate?

Athletes are encouraged from very early days to focus not on the result but rather their performance in relation to their own standard (their personal best).  We have little to no control over the behaviour of our competitors, however when it comes to our personal effort we can very much control our destiny.  We should remember that for some the disappointment experienced with a lower than expected medal or placing, may be as much about not attaining their PB.

To experience disappointment often elicits a grief response. Grief is tough enough when experienced in the privacy of our own homes, let alone in the public pressure-cooker that is the Olympic stage.  When a young 20-something has spent more than half their life training for a single opportunity, why should we be surprised when they become human on our screens and react with emotion?  Emotions are an integral part of what differentiates us from other species and our experiences (good and bad) provide our opportunity for learning and growth.

The journey to the Olympics is a long road with many potential highs and lows.  The odds of getting there are small and all that do (regardless of their performance outcome) are heroes for their courage and tenacity.

Embracing adversity … the good side to when things go wrong!

Ancient Greek, Epictetus wisely said:

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters

The flip side of the joy of life is that we at times face challenges and hardship.  Whilst we look for the silver linings, we unfortunately also need some days to look into the clouds.  Much of this is unfortunately beyond our control – a factor that for many of us becomes very disconcerting.  However there is an upside to adversity and knowing how to grow and develop beyond these challenges is where we can find the silver lining.

A few things to think about next time you face adversity.

Adversity is a reminder

I don’t meet too many people who tell me that they struggle from not being busy enough!  So when adversity comes along (illness, loss, disappointment) we can be forced to take stock of the things that are important to us: our friends, our family and our health.  Consistently the research tells us that ‘stuff’ (possessions, fame, and money) are not the things that bring us happiness.  When adversity pulls us up we have a chance to stop and reflect on what is important and where our priorities best lie.

Adversity provides guidance

Maybe the time has come to change your path?  Perhaps the challenge that you face is life telling you that you now need to think about doing things differently.  Maybe there is something that you can change.  Change, when it is done well requires knowing what decision to make and careful planning.  Take care to listen to your instinct, it is often a wise place to start.

Adversity makes us stronger

Whilst it may not feel it at the time, the only time we learn anything is when we make mistakes and are open to learning.  Most would prefer to experience success, however it is from our disappointments that we can dust ourselves off, reassess what we were doing (that didn’t work) and adjust for the future.  I have recently had interesting discussions with parents of successful athletes who have hit stumbling blocks when their child has experienced their first ‘failure’ and really not had the strategies to cope with it.  The advantage to not coming first every time, or not getting selected in the team is that it forces you to reconsider and grow.  We learn a great deal from when it doesn’t go the way we plan.  The important questions to ask ourselves are:

  1. Why might this have happened?
  2. What was my contribution?
  3. What did others do?
  4. Was it in or out of my control?
  5. What could I do differently next time?
  6. How am I better for the experience?

In fairness, sometimes depending upon the adversity it may be some time before we are ready to face such questions, however given none of us own a time machine (although I do put it on my wishlist to Santa every year!) all we have to go with is what we can control and how we can move forward.

I’d prefer the good times too, however I know that when adversity strikes at the very least I can learn from the experience and that can only benefit in the future.