I’m not proud to admit this, but when my daughter Madison was 6, my husband and I offered to pay her 50 cents for each time she was able to put her foot on the soccer ball during the games we came to watch. The games were torturous – if watching a bunch of first graders running aimlessly around the field on unseasonably cold October days wasn’t bad enough, try being the parent of the child who was running away from the ball or bending to examine a flower on the field while the ball and other kids chasing it zoomed by. When you push a kid to do something they really dislike, the outcome is never good. The bribe offer fell flat, and we drove home with a full pocket of change and a child who felt like she had disappointed us.
Then there were guitar lessons that we pushed our son Parker to take when he was in middle school. He reluctantly agreed to them but then refused to put in the requisite time to practice. Arguments, tears, guilt, and recrimination soon followed and all our wonderful intentions (helping our son learn a fun skill that would surely up his “cool” factor when he attended college) were for naught as the negative feelings he began to attach to the activity grew.
I wish I could say we were quick studies, but my husband and I kept making the same mistake – find an activity we think will benefit our children, push them to do it, feel frustrated when they go about it reluctantly, fight and finally give up – rinse and repeat.
It wasn’t until our daughter was in college and our son was in high school that we had our “aha” moment. No surprise perhaps, but we witnessed that when they engaged in activities that really sparked their passions and interests, the results were incredible – they worked hard and took pride in their efforts and there was no need for coaxing and cajoling. Their true engagement helped them better acquire skills and competencies and, best of all, if they chose a path that disappointed them, there was real learning and growth in that too instead of finger pointing at mom and dad for pushing them in the wrong direction.
I’m not advocating a hands-off approach to parenting, nor am I suggesting that offering incentives or encouraging your child to try new things is always a bad idea. If your child is spending all of their free time playing video games, it is absolutely fine to say, “As your parent, I feel it is important for your health that you get some physical activity in each week and I’d like you to participate in a sport.” But the key here is not to then say, “I’ve signed you up for fencing lessons because that will look good on your college application.” Engage your child in a true dialogue about what activity they might like best, their skills and interests and explore the pros and cons of each potential choice. During that conversation, you and your child may even agree upon some type of reasonable incentive that makes trying out the activity more palatable. Having discussions like this helps them feel like they are in the driver’s seat (kids love to feel in control) and gives them great experience evaluating options and making informed decisions. And most importantly, the increased investment they make in the decision will increase the chance that they will engage with positive results!
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