Starting next week, viewers around the world will turn their attention to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. If your children are watching the Games, they may aspire to compete themselves one day. If they haven’t already shown interest, your kids may suddenly want to try their hand at bobsledding, skiing, or skating.
There is a lot of conflicting data about competitive activities for children, but for the most part experts agree: it’s not about the competition itself, but about the values placed upon it.
Let your children try a variety of activities. Today’s kids have many specialty and school teams available, but focusing on a single activity too soon can lead to burn out and injuries. Even if they start out loving basketball, have them try baseball or dance or swimming, too. Young bodies shouldn’t repeat the same intense movements over and over; they should move in a variety of ways while they grow.
Don’t protect your kids from failure. The value of losing is a concept many of us struggle with even as adults, so start now helping your kids become comfortable with it. We’ve learned that children afraid of losing will quickly cease trying to challenge themselves. Instead they’ll “stick with what they know,” and only aim for goals they know they can achieve. Growth happens when children aren’t afraid to try something challenging just because they might fail.
Teach your children to value effort, responsibility, kindness, and discipline, rather than “talent” or “skill.” When a player on the other team scores, remind your child to celebrate his effort. When a member of the relay team lags behind, have your child thank her for never giving up.
You might ask, how do I do that? How do I acknowledge my child’s efforts without focusing on the win? What if my kid loses or gets embarrassed? We enroll our kids in activities so they’ll have fun, be active, and socialize, but if we aren’t careful, kids often end up playing to please their parents. Instead of celebrating their own tenacity and drive, kids begin to expect our celebration of them—and to be devastated when they don’t get it.
There are two types of praise that you can give your children. The first is called person-centered praise and includes phrases such as “you’re so smart!” or “you’re a good kid!” This type of praise places emphasis on traits that are assumed to be inherent and concrete—you are either smart, or you are not. You are a good athlete, or you are not. It does not leave room for skill-building, second-place trophies, or a failed exam.
These trait-based compliments become internalized by our kids, especially at a young age. Any result that doesn’t support the internalized narrative—say, a lost race—leaves kids questioning their inherent worthiness. (Am I a terrible athlete because I didn’t win?) This damages their sense of self-worth and creates a heightened sense of vulnerability. In short, kids who receive mostly person-centered praise are terrified of failure because failing might mean they really aren’t [smart/talented/an athlete/an artist]. So stop telling your kids how great they are!
Wait, what? Yep! Science tells us to stop with all of the “person praise” and switch to what we call process praise. It takes some time to develop this skill, but the results are invaluable. To do it:
1. Praise the strategy (e.g., “You found a creative solution to that problem even when you felt frustrated.”)
2. Praise with specificity (e.g., “I noticed you were very careful when you carried your friend’s bag to the car.”)
3. Praise the effort (e.g., “I can tell you’ve been practicing your leaps and turns!”)
With process praise, neither the trait (goodness, talent, intelligence, etc.) nor the outcome (a winning game or the aesthetics of the painting) are mentioned. With process praise kids learn that a terrible game doesn’t mean “I’m a bad athlete,” it means, “I tried really hard but I didn’t practice last week – how can I try differently?”
Remember, most of your children won’t ever compete at the highest level of sport, and even if they do, they won’t be able to do it forever. The values you instill in them now will long outlast their ability to play.
Hayley Adkisson, LCSW, is the senior social worker for the Divisions of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Rheumatology, Nephrology, and Infectious Disease at the Fink Children’s Ambulatory Care Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone. She also serves as a clinical social worker for NYU Langone’s Adolescent Gender Clinic and NYU Langone’s Pediatric Celiac Disease and Gluten-Related Disorders Program. Ms. Adkisson specializes in adolescent medicine, chronic illness, survivorship of sexual trauma, and mood disorders.