Monday, November 2, 2009

Where is the line between supporting our kids and pressuring them?

I tossed out a comment once while chatting with a friend that for all the effort and money we’re putting into our girls’ athletic activities, they’d better get college scholarships! It was one of those off-hand remarks said in a joking tone that was meant to just fade into the fabric of the conversation. Yet while the rest of the conversation has completely left my mind, that tossed-off joke has stayed with me. It haunts me. Often the sentence has flitted through my mind in completely unrelated situations. It baffles me, because it was just a joke…right?

But it’s said there’s truth behind every joke, and I guess if I were to be completely honest with myself, I really would like one or both of the girls to win athletic scholarships. In fact, if I want to be painfully honest with myself, and by extension, you, I sort of expect that they will. If they don’t…I’ll be disappointed.

I understand that admitting a truth like that makes me look like a horrible parent. Parents are supposed to love their kids unconditionally, and whether or not they earn a scholarship, athletic or academic, to college should be far, far, far down on the list of why we love our kids. Yet (I believe) for every mom or dad out there upon whom it suddenly dawns one day that, hey, I’ve got a truly gifted kid there, the thought of college scholarships isn’t far behind…

Which leads me to (at last) the topic of this blog: our expectations of our children. What is realistic? Where is the line between support and pressure? And who draws that line?

My girls chosen sports are running and gymnastics. My 10-year-old started with Track & Field six months ago, and is now in cross-country. At this point she’s earned several medals and has a 6:26 mile time—her goal is to get below 6:00 by the beginning of Track season in January. My 7-soon-to-be-8 year old is in competitive gymnastics, and has collected a mess of medals of her own, and will be going to State Finals in two weeks.

So how much is too much? Is running 20+ miles a week (between conditioning and races) too much for a 10-year-old girl? Or is 12 hours a week of gymnastics too big a burden for a child who is still mastering her times tables? Other parents say that as long as the kids “enjoy it” it’s all right—and as long as they keep their grades up.

I examine my heart; I get into that really uncomfortable place where my own unrealized dreams are hidden. How much of their success is really about me? And when it comes down to it, that’s the question every parents needs to honestly ask themselves when trying to determine how much is simply too much (or, conversely, not enough) for their child. If a child is asking to “take a break” from a sport or club or activity, it’s time to step back and allow that break. That doesn’t mean they won’t come back to the activity; it may mean something as simple as the kid is just plain tired. It could also mean that parents’ expectations have taken the child into an arena that they, the child, doesn’t have his or her whole heart invested in. That being said, the child could be very good at that sport or activity—but if their heart is not in it, then where’s the joy? And that’s when we have the responsibility as parents to look at our motivations.

While watching my girls, I am part of them. I am Sam as she dashes across the finish line. I feel it when she expels that deep, pent-up breath. I feel the air swoosh past my own face as Nati does flies around the uneven bars. Her hands hit the mat as she arches into a double back handspring, and my palms sting. But it’s not fair for me to keep them in an activity because of the feeling I get watching them. That’s when support becomes, in my opinion, pressure. When it ceases to be about them, and becomes about me.

But, as every parent who has a kid who’s exceeded expectations should know, ultimately the most important thing is to keep it all in perspective. It may lead, somewhere down the line, to a scholarship...or not. As a mom, it's my job to make sure I don't get carried away in what should be their life experience...but that I do give them the support, encouragement and time they need to be as good as they can whatever they choose to do.

And make sure to keep puttin' dough in that college savings account!

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