I am not a parenting guru. I make a ton of mistakes with my own kids and am so far from perfect that I can't even see perfect way off in the distance, even if I squint really hard.
But when do keynotes or workshops where I talk about managing people and managing behaviours, I invariably get a bunch of questions about managing kids, and if the same rules apply.
Does what we know about adult behaviour and performance apply to our children. In a nutshell, the answer is yes - for a lot of things (others not so much).
Given the popularity of this question, here are three things that you should tell your kids if you want them to perform their best when it matters - when they are late teenagers and adults.
These seem counter-intuitive to what we want to do every day, and most people will gasp at saying these to their children. But from what we know about performance, these are great skills to teach if we want our kids to be resilient and be able to do their best as they get older.
1) You Are Going To Fail
21st Century children have been built on a foundation of confidence. Alarmingly, people feel that confidence is a function of continuous positive reinforcement. You are great. You are wonderful. Everything you do is amazing. You can do anything. And to a degree this is terrific - it makes our kids feel good and that's partly what we want as parents.
But it’s not all we want to see. We also want to see our kids grow up resilient and strong. And the reality is that we're not good at everything.
As a consequence kids head into new endeavours with a little too much confidence sometimes. And we fuel this confidence by saying “You'll be able to do this! You can do anything! You're awesome!”
But what happens when they can't? What happens when they're actually not good at swimming or football or creative writing?
Well, they actually start to think things like 'I'm good at some things but not this thing.'
Or worse they believe they're so good that it mustn't be their fault that they didn't do too well. They might blame the teacher, the test or even you as a parent. Maybe the teacher didn't give clear instructions or you didn't give them the right breakfast. This is called externalising - when people blame other things or people when things don’t go well. Performance Psychology points this out as one of the key differences between winners and losers.
Or maybe they say things like ‘"Well, I wasn't trying anyway.” We tend to do and say things that allow us to hold on to out positive perception of ourselves - and this applies to kids as well.
This all might sound ok - it enables the children to still feel good about themselves and this is a good thing, right?
Well, it all depends on what happens next. Does the child give up the activity because they're 'just not good at this thing?' Do they not try again next time because now they have to keep up the charade of ‘not trying?’ Do they blame the teacher or you again for something else that must have gone wrong?
It also depends on what we do next as parents. Do we tell them that “yes, it was my fault I didn't give you the right breakfast”? Or that it probably is the teacher's fault? Or - the worst thing I see happen - we take them out of the activity because we agree with them that they're 'just not good at that thing' and we don't want them to feel bad about it.
Often parents won't put their kids in situations where they can fail. And the logic behind this sounds ok: it allows the child to hold onto their confidence. But it also stops children learning the skills that help resilience. If we never put them in situations where they get knocked down a little, then they never learn how to pick themselves up again.
This might be ok if the activity is running or cricket or a sport that doesn't matter, but what if the activity is maths or reading? And it actually is important? Because, like it or not, we teach our kids the same self-management skills in all these activities. If we show them it's ok not to participate or not to keep trying because you are not good at running, we inadvertently send the message that if you're not good at something then it's not worth doing.
Ideas to Consider:
So what's a better message for our children (or just about anybody, really)?
We should tell kids this: "You probably won't be great. After all, it's the first time you've done it."
This sets the expectation that you can't expect to be really great at something the very first time you do it. It makes it ok to fail and relieves the pressure of having to live up to the expectations that we unknowingly put on our kids by telling them how great they are all the time.
And if they do turn out to be great first time around, then this is a bonus!
But the follow up to this is even more important. We need to tell kids that if they want to be better at 'insert activity here' then all they have to do is practice and do more of it, and they'll get better.
This also puts kids in control. It tells them that if they don't do well, then they can do something about it. It's not up to the teacher or Mum's breakfast burrito, but it's up to them. And if they decide that it's not something that matters, then maybe they don't want to practice and get better after all. And maybe that's ok (depending on the task or activity).
This is an easy way to help children hold onto their confidence in a different way. It is much more productive for a child to think ‘If I try really hard at things I can be good.’ Rather than thinking ‘I'm either good at stuff, or I’m not.’
2) Winning Without Effort is Not Winning At All
This is a tough one. We all want to praise our kids for doing well, and deep down we like to tell everyone that Johnny is unbelievable because he just won the cross country or got straight A's on reading and colouring-in.
But we also have to consider that if Johnny is better than other kids, it may not be because he is unbelievable - it might just come down to luck.
I have had the good fortune to work with developing athletes in sports at the elite level. And here is what I know:
When they are young, children are better than other kids generally because of one reason: They're more developed.
And this can be either physical development - which is why they might be better at sports; or mental development - which is why they might be better at schoolwork. Physical development is more obvious, but in the same vein, some children's brains are more developed than others as well (Note - if your child is truly gifted at either of these things, they will be beating kids two years older than them, or they will be asked to skip a grade. And you might be in a different league).
But sadly for these well-developed children, they are often on borrowed time. And after this period, things can become very difficult for them unless they learn some critical skills.
Let's look first at the nature of physical or mental development.
These kids tend to do really well when they are young. And we, as parents, heap praise on them because it makes everyone feel good. But unfortunately, these children often learn that they are just naturally better than everyone else, and believe this to be the source of their success. When that source dries up (ie. when kids catch up to them developmentally) they often give up and become extremely dejected.
I was fortunate enough to go to school on a sporting scholarship when I was 12 years old. In my intake, there were 10 of us on scholarships who were regularly making State Teams in various sports. By the time we were 15, the vast majority of that cohort struggled to even make the school team, as other kids caught up to them physically. In fact, many of those kids actually left that school disillusioned. They thought they were 'just better' and then all of a sudden they weren't better. And they didn't know what to do.
Whenever I worked with elite sporting teams, and we had a new intake of junior athletes to our program, there were always two kids that stood out in any group:
One would be 'the natural' who was successful from a young age, who had an unbelievable ability, who never really had to try too much. The second would be 'the worker' - the kid who wasn't quite as good, had less natural ability but made up for that by training harder. Within two years of entering any elite sporting program, 'the natural' would be struggling and 'the worker' would be thriving. I can spot those athletes within 10 minutes of them walking into the locker room.
The bottom line is that if your advantage is physical development, then other kids are going to catch up at some stage and if you haven't learnt the value of hard work (because you never had to), then those other kids will most likely surpass you pretty quickly.
The same goes for mental development. Many children do extremely well when they are in younger grades, and parents like to think that they are gifted. But in most cases, they are just more mentally developed. At some stage, not only do other kids catch up with them, but the level of school work catches up with them.
Those kids who didn't need to put in any effort at all in grade two, now all of a sudden find themselves unable to complete grade four academics because it doesn't come as easily. Again, if they haven't learnt to work hard, they really struggle with getting B's instead of A's, lose confidence and don't understand why their 'gift' has failed them.
And unfortunately, when we praise them for 'winning' without effort, we send the message that what they are doing (or not doing) is working perfectly. We are saying “You're so great, you actually don't have to do any practice/study/work to be good!”
Imagine their confusion when all of a sudden this strategy isn't working anymore.
If you have a young child who is 'winning' without putting in any effort, then that might not really be winning. It might actually just be luck. And even worse, this might turn out to be a curse as they get older. It's hard for any of us to be good at something and then wake up and realise one day that we're not quite as good anymore.
Ideas to Consider:
We should praise our kids for doing well, obviously, but we should praise them even more for putting in effort. For training, for studying, for practicing managing their emotions. Anything that requires effort and practice should be rewarded above and beyond results.
If you have a child who is winning on the sporting field or in the classroom, then try to teach them the value of training, practice and study. Believe me, they will need to learn it at some stage and often when they really need it, it is too late. They become overwhelmed with frustration and often stop believing in themselves because their natural talent seems lost.
Explain to them that they are lucky, but unless they add hard work to that lucky-ness, then at some stage that luck is going to run out. And if you are in the frustrating position of having one child that works really hard and does ok, and another who does nothing and wins at everything, then maybe heap more praise on the one that tries rather than the one that wins.
Can kids train or practice too much? Absolutely.
This is one other reason why kids can be very successful at a young age - they just do a lot more practice than other kids. While this is good for all the reasons listed previously, it can also be a problem down the track. If little Johnny is training 10 times a week, and just beating other kids who are training twice a week, then at some stage those other kids are going to catch up if they decide to train a bit more. But the upside is that Johnny learns the value of hard work - you just have to manage expectations as he gets older. This article doesn't take into account 'healthy' training and study practices for developing children. You should see the advice of an accredited coach in your specific area.
Let me say this: If you have a child that practices a bit (not over the top) and is not physically bigger and stronger than other kids, and they are still winning..... that's a pretty good sign!
3) You Won't 'Be Fine'
When we were kids and we were nervous or anxious or even angry, our parents always said these words, like they would magically make everything better: "You'll be fine."
Those words were often accompanied by a gentle shove out the door or into the classroom.
"You'll be fine" never really helped me - and I guess it never really helped you either - but it's something that I hear parents say to their children all the time. Maybe it's default, maybe we actually don't know what else to say.
The reality is emotional control in children is fairly limited. The part of the brain that contains their 'emotional handbrake' isn't well developed, so they are more susceptible to emotions. Consequently, when we say 'You'll be fine" we leave kids to their own devices and their own strategies to deal with those emotions. Often those strategies are unproductive.
Think about when you get emotional as an adult - chances are that you often do things that don't necessarily help the situation - chances are you probably make things worse. Because as a general rule, humans suck when we are under pressure.
Under pressure, we tend to go to easy, auto-pilot behaviours. Adults can sometimes override this auto-pilot, but children find this exponentially harder.
When we say "You'll be fine" we are telling kids to suppress their emotions. Ignore them. They don't matter.
But they do matter. A lot.
Kids won't just ‘be fine’ - in fact, they'll probably do something reactive that stops them from doing their best. This is true for exams, public speaking, dealing with social conflict, or lining up for the 100-metre dash on sports day. They will get paralysed by anxiety or fear, they will lash out (or retreat into themselves) and they will go back to old unproductive habits instead of controlling their behaviours.
Ideas to Consider:
Maybe instead of the standard, "you'll be fine," acknowledge their emotions and make it ok. Remember, many emotions are uncontrollable.
When they say "I feel nervous," tell them it's normal and ok. Maybe say "of course you feel nervous, you're supposed to feel nervous, it's an exam!"
But as usual, the follow up to this is most important. Children need to develop strategies for dealing with emotions before they are in the emotional situation. This is a tool called a 'Prior Strategy'.
In the heat of the moment, we find it very difficult to come up with a strategy or recall a strategy we can use (we're on auto-pilot, after all). By coming up with a strategy beforehand, the child already knows exactly what they are going to do. It requires less thinking.
Good questions to ask might be:
"When you're feeling nervous, what do you think you can do?" You might need to suggest something. A favourite for our kids is simply to take three deep breaths and smile. Or just focus on the next thing you can do, rather than thinking too far down the track.
Interestingly, after children get a bit more successful at controlling their emotions, they’ll tell you that they’re going to be fine. When you ask them “are you nervous about today?” - they might say no, ‘they’ll be fine.’
But sometimes you need to push the point because while they feel fine at that moment, chances are that the nerves will probably be there when they are ignited. So make sure they have a strategy still in place. Sometimes it’s actually good to say - “Well, you’re probably going to be nervous when you get there, so what are you going to do then?”
We can apply this for all emotions that kids feel:
"If Sally call's you that name again, and you feel angry, what are you going to do?"
"If the teacher calls on you to do your talk, and you feel anxious, what are you going to do?"
"When you sit down to do your homework and you want to procrastinate, what are you going to do?"
This 'Prior Strategy' is a terrific tool for managing our emotions and behaviours in any situation:
"When you sit at the dinner table and you get frustrated because there's something on your plate you don't like, what are you going to do?"
I want to reiterate the purpose of this article: it's to take some performance strategies that we know work for managing our behaviours as adults and apply them to how we manage children. I wrote it because the number of questions I get about this in workshops and keynotes is staggering. The ideas here are counterintuitive- and I'm sure people will disagree or take offence to some of what is written - but thinking about our kids objectively is hard. And I hope you can take something from this article to solve a problem you currently have, or to intercept a problem you might have in the future.
** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.