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Monday, January 06, 2014

Raising Realistic Kids

My youngest, Noah James
Last night I started down an interesting road via my post about the serious, long term damage we are doing to our kids when we raise them with a sense of entitlement.  I have been BLOWN AWAY by the response of people from, literally, all over the world. So far, 100% agreement.

Wish I knew more people. . .we could start something of a revolution!

Today I thought, why not strike while the iron's hot?  Tomorrow I might shrink back to my usually non-political/non-pot stirring self, but today, I remain perched on my tiny little soapbox.  So, here I go again.

Today's hot-button topic?  Raising Realistic Kids.

I have four children.  First came two girls, then two boys joined the clan.  The age range is fairly large: from 17 down to 7.  Though they all get along pretty darn well, they are also vastly different in personality, giftings, and demeanor.

And self-confidence.  Seriously.  Like. Night. And. Day.

Two of my kids are completely comfortable in their own skins. From Day 1, they have walked to the beat of their own drummers rather than following the crowd, have navigated easily through major transitions that often cripple others (new schools, cross-world moves, medical emergencies, etc) and have had almost NO friend drama.  They are secure in who they are, comfortable with areas that they are weak in, happy with their strengths, and generally at peace with the world.  Some times, they are a little too secure in themselves.

On the other hand, my two other kids struggle with self-confidence.  They are slightly awkward and shy in public, don't know where to put their hands or feet when they first meet a person, are often second guessing themselves and their choices, and tend to be significantly more emotional and dramatic.  These two are NOT confident in their abilities (despite being very intelligent, talented, wonderful kids), are mortified at their weaknesses, wish they had different 'strengths' and are generally not quite sure where they fit in to the big, wide world yet.

So I have an interesting dilemma. . .I believe it's important to encourage your kids, but I also believe it's crucial to be honest with them, too.  I want my kids to have the gumption to aim for the stars, but I don't want them walking off the edge of a building because of some deluded notion that they can fly.  I want them to know they're good enough, strong enough, and, doggone it, people like them! (aging myself here a bit, aren't I, Stuart Smalley fans?) But I don't want them to walk through life expecting to be adored, either.

After all, we've all seen what happens to over-praised, over-inflated kids on American Idol, haven't we? National TV in front of millions isn't exactly the greatest place to discover that your parents slightly overstated your musical abilities!  E-gads!

Parents today seem determined to praise and exhort their children so emphatically that they emerge from the aforementioned self-entitlement phase so enrapt with their own physical, mental, academic, and artistic abilities that they are absolutely decimated to find out they aren't, after all, the best athlete, student, singer, and horticulturist, etc.

The results of coming face to face with the reality that they are, gasp, regular folk, is often devastating.  If someone enters adulthood without a firm understanding of what they are truly capable of OR a healthy dash of self-esteem, they're in for quite a rude awakening.

But how do you encourage kids to be self-aware and realistic, while also challenging them to try new things and enjoy others just for the experience?  How do you keep self-confidence from edging over into arrogance and keep lack of self-confidence from sinking into paralyzing self-doubt?

Here's a few suggestions of ways to walk the thin, precarious line down the middle:
  • Be honest.  If something is truly, objectively good, say it.  But if there is no real ability or result to praise, then praise the effort or the willingness to give something a go or the creativity.  To be trusted, we must be trustworthy.  
  • Reward adventurousness.  Make the try, the thing that is important.  And make giving a new thing a go, or attempting a hard thing, the exciting bit of the process.  If you model the attempt as the 'goal' and downplay the results, whatever they may be, you emphasize effort over achievement, which releases a child from feeling like they must perform well or stop the activity.
  • Recognize improvement.  If you recognize and affirm improvement, your kids will do that, too.  Being the 'best' should never be the goal. . .being better than last time should.  That's a precious gift to give, both to our kids as well as to humanity.   The world is full of geniuses and star athletes and heroes of all sorts that didn't particularly shine at first. 
  •  Don't compare.  Never, ever, ever compare your kids to each other, nor label one the 'artist,' one the 'scholar,' one the 'athlete,' etc.  Labels constrain, as do comparisons.  It's especially hard for a child struggling with self-worth to motivate themselves to try something a sibling or friend is particularly good at. 
  • Point out and relish the differences around you. . .between you and your spouse, your siblings, your friends.  Kids with less-than-optimal self-esteem often merge the best qualities of every person they know and then measure themselves against this contrived super-person.  Gently putting these admirable traits back into their respective places, and pointing out how everyone has different abilities and strengths can help a child to grow confident in their own unique make-up.
  • Don't be afraid to fail.  If you model graciously failing, getting back on the horse, and trying again, your children will follow suit.  Some parents fear that if their kids see them fail, they will lose respect for them.  The truth is, their respect will deepen if they see your honest assessment of yourself and your willingness to enjoy an activity, no matter what the result.
Obviously, this isn't a comprehensive how-to, but they're a great starting point.

After all, we're trying to grow great kids here, aren't we?!?

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