Recently, I had a discussion with one of my good mom friends who also happens to be a teacher. I was curious about the level of respect that parents showed to teachers in 2019, because my perception based on having a child in her second year of kindergarten is that teachers have to tiptoe extensively around the sensitivities of parents. My skin started to crawl when I learned just how many parents feel entitled enough to disrespect or disregard a teacher’s experience. I can’t say I was surprised, but I was definitely disappointed.
My friend proceeded to tell me that in 2019, kids are not allowed to experience any kind of failure in school. Their entire learning experience must be 100% positive, and must reinforce each child’s self esteem. While I appreciate the merits of positive reinforcement, building a child’s self esteem, and creating an enthusiastic learning environment, the real world isn’t always going to be 100% positive for our kids. Life simply doesn’t work that way. I shudder to think what our future society will look like if teachers and other authority figures don’t have the ability to address our kids freely regarding areas that could use improvement, or the areas where our kids can simply be challenged to work harder. If kids don’t have the experience of working through difficulties or frustrations, we are going to be raising a generation of entitled, fragile adults.
My friend also told me in further discussion that her mother, who worked for years in human resources, recently witnessed multiple parents becoming involved in salary negotiation, on behalf of their kids. What kind of world do we live in, when young adults can’t stand on their own two feet long enough to negotiate a salary? I fear that in 2019, we’ve reached a point where far too many parents come flying in at the first sign of trouble, never allowing their kids to work through failure or frustration. I fear that in 2019, too many parents view the teacher-parent or teacher-coach relationship as a customer service transaction: I, the parent, send my children to you, the teacher, and you will serve and appease me and my children. Fellow parents, we are not helping our children with this sense of entitlement – we are doing irreparable damage to them.
Every parent has an idea of what they want for their kids, and I know without a doubt that with the values I want my kids to learn, that they are going to have to experience failure. The short list of values that I hope my kids adopt are: 1. Good manners, 2. Empathy 3. A strong emotional quotient (EQ), and 4. Committed to seeking their potential. If my kids don’t have the opportunity to experience failure, how are they going to develop a resilient EQ, and how will they know where their potential might lie? As the late, great John Wooden said, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” My parents’ philosophy was quite similar: they always told my sisters and I that they didn’t care if we were C students, or if we were A students, as long as we were consistently trying our best. If a grade of “C” resulted from putting forth our best effort, our parents were happy with it. However, if a grade of “C” was received when we had “A” potential, you bet we heard about it. Imagine what would happen today, in 2019, if a teacher suggested to a parent that a C student simply wasn’t trying hard enough. How many parents would activate their Customer-Service mode, ask to speak to a manager, and demand that the teacher reward their child with a better grade?
Children need to understand that it is a *normal part of life* that not all of us have the same strengths and abilities, but with perseverance and dedication, there is always an opportunity to improve. I am a firm believer that true self-confidence comes not from the things we “excel” at, but from working through failures, becoming self-aware, and persisting through difficulties. I’m not interested in instant-gratification, surface attempts at building self-esteem where we paint a flawless picture and tell our kids that they are incredible and special in every single possible way, when in reality, none of us are. I am not interested in reading a report card if my kids’ teachers don’t have the freedom to state what is 100% the truth. How are we going to help our kids when our teachers, coaches and other authority figures have to cater to a toxic parenting culture of keeping our kids and their feelings wrapped safely in a bubble? Yes, we need to highlight, boost, and compliment our kids’ strengths, but we also need to acknowledge that experiencing failure, or an undesirable outcome when trying something, doesn’t make you a bad person – it makes you human.
I distinctly remember a situation I experienced over 10 years ago, before having kids. Having spent 15 years as a competitive swimmer, I spent a couple of years coaching young swimmers part-time. During one of our competitions, one of the kids from the group I was coaching didn’t show up. Occasionally, kids had to miss competitions, but it was an established rule of the swim club (for safety reasons, and also for common courtesy), that the coach should be notified when a swimmer would be absent from competition. I hadn’t heard from either parent, and they did not respond to my phone calls or emails inquiring if their daughter was okay. Towards the end of the competition, we were preparing for the relay races, where each individual relay team is comprised of four kids. I had to make the decision to scratch one of the relay teams, because with one kid absent from competition, there weren’t enough swimmers to complete the final relay. As such, three other kids were left disappointed.
The following week, the young girl returned to swim practice. When I inquired about her absence at the competition, her answer to me was “My dad said I didn’t have to come.” I was shocked. I asked her “Well, did you *want* to come?,” to which she replied, “Yes.” I was livid. She was a kind, polite, 11-year-old girl who had only been swimming in my group for a couple of months. Sure, when she started, she struggled to keep up with the other kids, most of whom were younger, but in that couple of months, she was improving tremendously. Her confidence was growing. Most importantly, I could tell she was having fun. “I’ll have a talk with your dad,” I told her.
After swim practice, I waited until almost all the other kids were gone, before her dad finally arrived to pick her up. I asked if he received my messages or emails inquiring about his daughter’s absence at the competition, and he dismissed me like it was no big deal to have kept me uninformed. His response as to why he didn’t bring her to the competition still infuriates me to this day: “You know, my daughter does really well in school. She’s an A+ student. But for something like this, where she doesn’t do as well, we’re just not going to focus on it as much. She is focussing on the things she excels at.” At that moment, I was livid. This compelled me to make probably the most bold statement that pre-kids me ever made regarding someone else’s parenting: “So, as a father, are you okay with teaching your daughter that her self-esteem and self-worth are only tied to the things that you perceive she excels at??” He didn’t answer me, but he was surprisingly non-confrontational. The wheels in his head were clearly turning. I proceeded… “You might see your daughter as being behind the other kids, but what I’m seeing as a coach is something totally different. I’m seeing your daughter’s confidence grow daily because she is persevering through the swim practices. I’m seeing her skills improve drastically. I’m seeing her challenging herself in new ways. I’m seeing her form new friendships. I’m seeing the smile on her face every single day that she walks onto the pool deck. If you perceive her as failing at swimming, and if you only believe that she should spend time on the things she excels at, she will be missing out on a lot of opportunities.”
I proceeded to reprimand this dad for his lack of courtesy with not informing me of his daughter’s absence. Three other young kids were disappointed that day because one dad decided his daughter wasn’t worth bringing to the swim competition, and because the he didn’t respect me enough as a coach to at least advise me of her absence. Actually, I correct myself. Four kids were disappointed that day – with his daughter being one of them. During the few years that I spent coaching kids, the best part was hands-down the kids. The hardest part was being dismissed by certain parents, who felt that my role as a coach in their kids’ lives wasn’t at all important or worthy of any respect. I consider myself lucky, however, that coaching was a part-time endeavour for me and not a primary income source, because I don’t think my teacher counterparts would have been able to share their uncensored thoughts with a parent like this, without fear of repercussions.
Now that I’m a parent, and I have the opportunity to see my own kids grow through their strengths and challenges, one of the things that stands forefront in my mind is my daughter’s first ice skating lesson. My daughter is lucky to be an enthusiastic and quick learner in school. In her young five years of life, she’s found many strengths, and has gotten accustomed to learning quite a few things fairly quickly and with a minimal frustration. Ice skating, however, was not one of those things that came quickly or easily to her. During my daughter’s first skating lesson, she fell more times than I could count, each time becoming more and more frustrated. Her patience was wearing thin, and her frustration escalated into tears. 13 minutes into the 30 minute lesson, she walked off the ice, sobbing hysterically.
“Mommy I CAN’T DO IT!!!” I gently encouraged her to get back on the ice. “Listen, it’s totally normal to fall. Falling is learning. I don’t care how many times you fall out there; the most important thing is that you get back up. That’s how you learn.” Yet no matter what I said or how gently I said it, my daughter refused to return to the ice. Finally, I gave her a little incentive: “If you go back out and finish your lesson, we will get Timbits on the way home.” (For any readers not aware, Timbits are donut holes in Canada). My daughter marched back on the ice so fast you wouldn’t know she was crying only two minutes earlier.
Three mothers approached me as soon as she got back on the ice, all smiling. One of them asked me “So, we just want to know – was there bribery involved there??!” “HELL YES!,” I said. They all laughed. One of the mothers said “They say in all the sports books that we shouldn’t do that, but sometimes kids just need a little incentive.”
Now I know what you might be thinking – it’s probably the same thing that those three other mothers were thinking: It’s not good to bribe your kid, and I’m probably that batshit crazy Canadian hockey parent who has dreams of her kids making it big to the NHL or to the Olympics. My rationale, however, couldn’t have been further from this idea. All I wanted in that moment was for my daughter to simply finish the 30 minute lesson. All that was important to me, in that moment, was to help her into a mindset where she could learn to manage her intense frustration. As a former athlete who competed in three Canadian Olympic Trials and was an NCAA All-American, I have the experience to know that if my kids want to perform in any sport (or any other pursuit) at the highest level, it has to come from them – not from me. Whether or not my kids decide to pursue skating, or hockey, or swimming, or *anything* for that matter, all I truly care about is that they learn the value of commitment and working through challenges, because these are life skills they will need as adults. I refuse to be the parent that one day walks into the human resources department for either of my kids in order to negotiate their salary.
Now, a few months later, as I watch my daughter on the ice, I see a little girl who still struggles to skate, but she does so with a smile on her face. I see a little girl who is determined to be a student of the sport, even if she can’t yet keep up with the other kids. I see a little girl who doesn’t worry if she falls 10 or 20 or 50 times in an hour – she gets back up again and tries harder. I see a little girl who has developed a true love for hockey and skating. I see a little girl who hasn’t expected Timbits as part of the package since the very first day she went on the ice. I see a little girl who has overcome what she initially perceived as a failure, and has become more confident because she worked through it. Had I conceded to my daughter’s frustrations after that first day on the ice, or had I labelled the skating program as “too hard” and demanded our money back, she would have walked away from one of the first things that didn’t click for her, and I’m not sure that she would have developed the confidence she has while skating today.
Parents, we have a responsibility to raise the next generation, and we need to place trust in the other authority figures that are helping us to do so. Personally, I don’t know how teachers and coaches do it anymore if so many of us as parents are challenging them, and if our kids aren’t permitted to fail at anything. Yes – let’s continue to elevate our kids by praising them and encouraging them with all the things they do well. Let’s also allow our kids to elevate themselves by encouraging them to work through the things they are challenged with. We owe this to teachers, to coaches, and most importantly, to our kids.