Teach your kids that trying your best is better than coming out on top

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(Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
(Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

We live in a highly competitive society where everyone – children included – are constantly bombarded with the pressure to be the best at everything.

Yet some children are quite happy not to be top achievers. Should parents be worried about this? And how do you motivate children to do their best without putting too much pressure on them? We asked experts for guidelines.

If children are happy to be second best it’s a sign they have a good self-image, says psychologist Claudette Jordan of Durban.

“We have to be careful as parents not to unconsciously teach our children they’re valued only if they win or are the best at something,” she warns. “If this happens they’ll soon learn to strive for approval and use whatever means at their disposal – sport, musical talent or academic achievement – as an avenue to build their sense of self-worth.”

Children should be raised to believe that human beings have intrinsic value, not because they’re good at something. “They should be taught to celebrate their uniqueness, that each of us is born with different gifts and strengths and that we won’t necessarily be good at the same things as our peers.”

If you can establish this foundation you’ll raise your child with a good self-image. “Whatever actions they engage in become an extension and a celebration of who they are, not an opportunity to plug a hole of neediness for affirmation or recognition.”

Beware of laziness

On the other hand it can be risky not to motivate your child at all, Jordan says. “Children might get into a pattern of laziness or diminished responsibility and get by with doing the bare minimum.

“Sometimes motivation has to start off externally but with the goal of making this intrinsic to your child.”

Parents must create an atmosphere where it’s not about “winning” or “being the best” but rather about giving your best. “Then we’re encouraging pride in the attitude towards and process of engaging in an activity rather than the end result.

How to motivate your child

The most important thing to remember is that it’s about your child, not about you. “Their participation isn’t your means to live vicariously through them and in so doing improve your own self-esteem. That’s immature, selfish and totally unfair on children,” Jordan says.

Let the child be the main decision-maker and remind them they chose the musical instrument or sport themselves. Also ask them what they’d like to achieve in a certain field. Jordan has the following tips:

  • Guide children to set realistic goals that are within their ability and that they can accommodate in their programme, keeping in mind other commitments such as homework, socialising and family time.
  • Praise their attempts rather than the results.
  • Teach your children to be proud of themselves and not to rely on praise from others.
  • Be supportive and encouraging, not critical and controlling.

On the sport field

Sporting achievement can’t be attained without children motivating themselves, says Pretoria sports psychologist Greyling Viljoen.

“If you put too much pressure on a child he’ll become demotivated and stop an activity at the first opportunity, or perhaps become ill or injure himself. The child must first and foremost want to take part in the sport.” If children do take part in competitive sport you must distinguish between the achievement and the child. “Children are inclined to say, ‘Poor performance means I’m not good enough.’ Then a parent should rather discuss the match and focus on a tactic or technique that can be improved.”

It’s also a good idea to emphasise hard work, not performance, Viljoen says. “When you set goals with your child talk about goals along with the process: what must I do to get where I want to be? Emphasise that the goal is to train a certain number of hours a week rather than being among the top three.”

Parenting in a post-Covid world

Attend the Your Child Conference, brought to you by YOU and DRUM, and get the guidance and answers you’re looking for. Find out more here.

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