The older I get the more I realize that life is nuanced, gray and a bit ambiguous. Similarly, I’ve come to believe that Parenting is a dance and not a formula. Recently, my kid’s experience with Youth Sports has revealed something in the way that I parent, that isn’t helpful for my kids. Let me explain.
Words matter, especially the ones we use with our children. Our words, and how we say them, shape how our children process and think about themselves and others. This is both a good thing and a dangerous thing. Our words can bolster confidence, or impart anxiety. Youth Sports (or dance, the arts etc.) provide an opportunity for us to shape our kids for better or for worse. There is one particular phrase that I’ve used after practices and games that, though well-intended has the potential to warp the way my daughter and sons process their worth, value and security. This phrase seems so harmless and frankly, when used properly it is a wonderful, good and right thing to say to your child. However, used at the wrong time it can do harm. Okay, so what’s the phrase I’ve tried to remove from my vocabulary after practices and games?
“I’m proud of you. You _______ so well.”
You must be thinking, “What?!” I know, it seems ridiculous and counter-intuitive, but hear me out. I’ve got four kids, all who long for validation and affirmation from their parents. This is normal, after all, they’re hard-wired by their Creator this way. So what is the problem with me telling them, “I’m so proud of you for how you hit the ball/played the piano/nailed the part?” When I would describe to my daughter how proud I was of how she hit the ball, ran the bases or made the out – I began to unintentionally plant the idea in her heart that my pride and delight in her was rooted in her ability to perform. When she didn’t perform well, she’d be upset, even heartbroken. Why? Because she felt like she had let me down.
The easy and self-protecting thing to do as a parent in that situation is to just dismiss it. After all, it’s not true – she didn’t let me down. It wasn’t my intention to communicate that I was only proud of her when she did well. But, if that’s the way she processed it…well, we all know what they say about “good intentions,” right?
So, here are the two small changes I’ve made:
1) I tell my kids I’m proud of them BEFORE their performance. That no matter how things go – whether you hit a home run or strikeout, whether you stutter through the part, or nail the scene like Meryl Streep – I’m proud of you. I won’t be more OR less proud of you based on how you do. You are my daughter and sons – I delight in you as you are. Nothing you do will change that. This small change has the potential to free them from performance anxiety tied to making mom and dad proud. Instead, they can participate for the joy and reward of the game itself, not what the game might bring them in respect to validation and affirmation from their parents.
2) I tell my kids I’m happy for them AFTER their performance. I love to see them succeed and do well. I love when they get a hit. I’m thrilled when they get the part. But I’m thrilled for them, not me. If we’re not careful we can, even as loving parents, desire our kids to be successful because of how it makes us feel and look as parents. A Daddy and Momma’s purest form of love is that expression which is for the good of their kids. That’s the kind of love that is sometimes tough, but always selfless.
It’s a small and nuanced change, but one that I hope builds their security and worth on the foundation of who they are, not what they do. Dad and Mom are proud of you for WHO you are. We’re happy for you when you’re successful at WHAT you do.