By Danika Altman, Ph.D.
Most of us believe our message to our children is: “Do your best.” But the implicit message may be: “You need to be the best.” We are a community of achievers with high expectations for our children. We want our children to replicate our success. We employ coaches and tutors to help, but by doing so we may also be conveying “You must do well.” The problem is that this message may be causing anxiety and win-at-all-costs attitudes in our children.
An overemphasis on winning neglects the valuable lessons that are learned from losing. It is painful and humbling. In order for our children to cope with losing, they must feel compassion for themselves. When we face our failures, compassion and support gives us a chance to rebound. Compassion for ourselves despite our flaws and mistakes is the way we endure criticism and grow. Alternatively, judgment and negativity after a failure often leads to anxiety, depression, aggression, quitting or poor performance.
In the U.S. Open Tennis final, Novak Djokovic gave us a good example of his need to win-at-all-costs. He called for a medic just before Stan Wawrinka’s turn to serve rather than before his own, and a game short of the changeover. The announcers alluded to this being poor sportsmanship. Wawrinka had momentum, and the six-minute hiatus could have caused him to lose focus but–despite it–he won the title. What makes this interesting is Djokovic and Wawrinka are friends, but will Wawrinka ever trust Djokovic again?
We have fortunately many opportunities to teach our children about sportsmanship and friendship. We have likely overheard children posturing, saying things like: “I’m the best at soccer and so and so is next.” If children brag to feel powerful by inducing envy in their friends, they will not likely have many successful friendships. We should teach our children that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. We should help them focus on their strengths and improving their weaknesses rather than on other children’s weaknesses to feel good about themselves. An excellent exercise in self-esteem building for children is to have them compliment someone who needs improvement in a particular skill. It creates positive feeling and connection rather than “power” at another child’s expense.
When we face our failures, compassion and support gives us a chance to rebound.
Children are experts at reading their parent’s reactions. If we express anger that our children have made the B team instead of the A team, they feel that they have failed, when in fact they have an opportunity to grow.
If we point out the number of children our children have to beat to get to the top of the tennis ladder, we are sending the message: “I will not be satisfied until you get there.” If we express disappointment when our children receive a poor grade on an exam, the message is “only an A makes you acceptable to me.”
Parents who criticize their children, their children’s teammates or coaches, create anxiety. They are teaching their children that their weaknesses will be seen and judged by others. When children feel shamed, they feel resentment toward their parents, rather than a desire to improve. Instead, empathic statements about how hard it is to be on the playing field or score As on tests are very valuable. Our children want to know that we support them and their friends despite setbacks. Empathy for their struggles empowers them to be resilient and self-confident. It enables them to work through their own disappointments without quitting or doubting themselves.
We abhor losing because it makes us feel pain and vulnerability but it also gives us opportunity to build self-esteem. If we help our children to see that we have been there and pushed through, we become role models for how to rebound. If we help our children view failures as something that happen to all of us but do not define who we are, they might even accept a bit of advice. If our children see our confidence in their ability to work hard and our compassion for their pain, we give them the strength and determination to try again.
In a Ted Talk, Julie Lythcott Haims reports the Harvard Grant Study shows that the best predictor of success in adulthood is not athletic ability or grades. It is the number of chores one did in childhood. A greater number of chores is correlated with taking initiative and contributing to the greater good at work. We all know that working with colleagues is equally as important for success as surpassing them.
If our implicit message to our children is that they have to win, they may not be developing confidence, compassion, humility and resilience in the process of growing up.
If instead, we help our children reach their goals by supporting their strengths while having compassion for their weaknesses, they will hopefully have the self-esteem to do their best.
Danika Altman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice with adolescents, adults and couples. She specializes in adolescent anxiety, depression, and identity development. She also works as a coach for students on college and employment interviews. She has offices in Pleasantville and Manhattan.