Even while on vacation, I always have my eyes and ears open for inspiration for my Principal’s Messages. This summer was no exception. During one of our summer trips, while enjoying some time in a hotel pool, I watched a dad and his young son as the boy concentrated on his swimming skills. After working really hard, to get from one end of the pool to the other under the watchful eye of his dad, the boy stood up and excitedly asked, “Dad do you think I am getting so good at swimming that I will be the next Michael Phelps?” I waited, with as much anticipation as the boy, for the Dad’s answer.
I must tell you that I was surprised, but not disappointed, by the response given to the young boy’s question. Dad said, “If you keep working really hard you will feel good about your swimming skills and will be proud of yourself.” No mention of winning medals or great glory, just about feeling accomplished.
What? No future Olympian in our midst then? Who really knows, but I was so pleased to hear this Dad “keeping it real” for his son and encouraging him to do his best, simply for the feeling of pride it would give him and not for any external prize or adulation.
So, what would be wrong with the dad telling his son that indeed he is on his way to becoming the next great athlete? Probably harmless, right? Not necessarily. As parents, we must be careful of our exaggerations to our children. “You are the fastest swimmer or the fastest runner in the whole wide world” is more than likely not true and, in fact, not even close to the truth, and as parents we should be trying our best to remain truthful to our children at all times. Instead, “you swam/ran faster today than you did yesterday” is not only more truthful but more helpful. As parents, we should spend more time focusing on the effort rather than the finished product. Most importantly, we should be encouraging our children to be the final judge of their work so that they don’t become too dependent on praise from others to feel good about themselves.
We are all concerned with boosting our child’s self-esteem and that is a noble and worthwhile cause, to be sure. By focusing on what children do right and by paying attention to how we praise them, however, we are more likely to promote self-esteem. They truly don’t need to hear that they are the best, the fastest, the smartest; they just need to know we appreciate their efforts, we care, and we are there for them always. There is nothing wrong with congratulating our children when they do a great job, but flattery that focuses on their abilities or their character can come with a great deal of pressure for our youngsters to live up to. Imagine if your little swimmer thought you had your sights set on him or her being an Olympian one day. Way. Too. Much. Pressure! If we are worried about crushing their self-esteem by not always telling them that they are amazing, just know that studies have proven that a child’s self-esteem is predicated more on parental warmth than by parental over evaluation.
As we begin a new season of extra-curricular sports and activities with our children, let’s all be mindful of what they really need from us. They need to hear that their efforts matter and that they matter. And if they end up on a podium one day, well good for them. Oh and by the way, the boy in the pool? He wasn’t crushed that his dad didn’t say he would be the next Michael Phelps. Instead, he ducked under the water and headed back to the other side, while Dad proudly followed right alongside him!
Principal and Co-Founder
Children’s Garden School