Are you pushing your kids too hard?

Last year, a Free State couple has been convicted of child abuse after forcing their daughter to swim in galas, and beating her if she didn't do it. When is a parent too pushy?

Children need exerciseand sports activities – at school, or as private lessons – are the best way to get your kids moving. But how do you know if you're turning into a pushy parent?

The percentage of children who are overweighthas more than doubled over the past 30 years, according to the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA).

Although many factors contribute, the fact that children are becoming more sedentary is a real issue. According to SSISA, parents need to ensure that their children are getting enough exercise, and to promote physical activity in as many ways as possible.

However, there is a fine line between encouraging your child to be more active and being the sort of pushy parent who sends sports coaches running for the hills, and puts children off sport forever.And then it can go completely overboard as in the case mentioned above.

The importance of sport

"From a psychological perspective, sport can have a major influence on how a child develops emotionally," says Greyling Viljoen, a private psychotherapy and sports psychologist.

It teaches youngsters co-operation and general socialising skills. The competitive environment also encourages problem-solving skills and teaches children how to:

  • overcome setbacks
  • persevere
  • focus on goals
  • concentrate
  • work as part of a team.

Clinton Gahwiler, a sports psychologist, agrees and notes that "research also suggests that the more physically active one is as a child, the more likely one will continue to be active as an adult."

Lead by example

"There are a number of ways parents can motivate their children to play sport, and to play it well. The primary way is to lead by example and be involved in sport, or be active, yourself. Many parents aren't and this leads to problems," Viljoen said.

He added that it was imperative that the child gets to choose a sport that he or she will enjoy: pleasure in the sport should come before achievement.

"The biggest motivator, even for professional athletes, is the pleasure that’s derived from the actual activity and not just the satisfaction of winning. If this is not cultivated in children from the start, there is a chance they will not continue with the sport and being focused only on the winning element can have an effect on other aspects of their lives," he said.

Gahwiler also pointed out that it's important not to always use the term “exercise”.

"Children should be encouraged just to play, although I shudder to think of how it reflects on our society when we have to "motivate" children to run and play. It is something that happens totally naturally when space is created for it – and I suppose that implies needing to limit time spent in front of the TV and computer screens," he said.

Don't confuse the roles

According to Viljoen, a parent's role is to offer unconditional support, yet know when to step back.

"If you see your child making a mistake, you want to help, but it's necessary to bite your tongue and let it happen, so they can learn from it. The emphasis should be on improving the process and not the outcome, which is why, at the end of a game, parents should ask 'Did you enjoy it?' rather than 'Why didn't you do this and that?'," he said.

He added that the best way for parents to prevent themselves crossing the line from being supportive to being pushy, is to ensure they do not try to live vicariously through their children.

"This usually results in the child dropping out as soon as they can. In the teenage years, many people think children drop out of sport because they're burned out or not interested, but it's usually more as result of pressure from their parents," said Viljoen.

Gahwiler agreed and said that a pushy parent "creates issues like fear of failure, or 'identity foreclosure', in which the child's identity and sense of self-worth is too wrapped up in one area of life – in this case sport – before they adequately experiment with or experience other areas enough. This is a huge factor in the high drop-out rate we see in children's sport."

Learn when to back off

Viljoen claimed that the most important relationship in any sport is that of the player and the coach. This is one relationship parents should not interfere with.

"If you come between the child and their coach, you are entering a dangerous area."

He advised parents to rather focus on the child. "If your child has been on the bench, rather than shouting at the coach about it, talk to your child about how they can improve their game to ensure they will be chosen next time. Adopt a 'we'll show the coach' attitude – but in a positive way that doesn’t undermine the coach's authority," he said.

Chin up!

Here are some pointers on how to be supportive and encouraging while increasing your child's sense of control:

  • Be enthusiastic about how they played and celebrate achievements.
  • Treat mistakes as part of the process and not as a sign of failure.
  • Listen to their problems and difficulties, and understand that these are real.
  • Be interested, but not overbearing – ask open-ended questions rather than specific ones.
  • Don't be too quick to jump in and sort out a mistake. Give them time to realise it for themselves and deal with it.
  • Boost their confidence by offering a range of solutions rather than telling them what's right and wrong.

- (Amy Henderson, Health24)

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