When Bumper Stickers Ruled the Earth

There are no stickers on my car. No stick figure people, no mottos or creeds, no political campaigns, and no “my kid made the honor roll/my kid beat up your honor roll student” magnets. For one, I don’t love clutter or anything that generally presents a “busy” aesthetic. Even more, I’m not interested in using an automobile to advertise my child’s accomplishments.

Several years ago, I read an article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled How to Land Your Child in Therapy. I highly recommend reading it when you have the time. The author, Lori Gottlieb, takes a look at the effect modern parenting has had on the long-term happiness of children. Whether you agree with her perspective or not, there’s no debate as to the challenges and complexities of raising kids.

The Labyrinth of Youth Sports

For a look into one parenting petri dish, wander down to a local field or gymnasium most any weekend. It isn’t hard to find travel tournaments or recreational leagues offered in a variety of team sports. What you’ll observe ranges from heart-warming to (more often) outrageous and downright ludicrous.

Specifically, I’m referring to youth sports; not higher level, but elementary children getting introduced to competitive sports. Some leagues get this right. They are clear about their purpose and educate parents about the role they are to play, and how a final score should be buried far down the rung of importance. They exist for the sake of development — physical and social. They promote recreation, bonding, and learning how to play with others. Unfortunately, this message is not the norm.

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The landscape of youth sports has evolved rapildy over the past few decades. Opportunity grew, in part, as more and more people realized the profitability possible by making sports available on a grander scale. Since then, the scene has exploded. Despite recent research which reflects a cooling trend, millions of youths across the country play at least one team sport.

Consequently, an otherwise healthy rite of passage has become as much about parents as the children participating. A simple Google search on parents behaving badly abounds with examples of deplorable conduct. Finding a place where civility is the standard is not easy. More often, you are likely to find emotionally-charged environments where some parents attempt to vicariously channel themselves into the game. A child’s rather meaningless performance — a term I use loosely — transforms into the theater of the absurd. Parents seeking self-serving validation through their kid’s accomplishment lose sight of why they should be there in the first place. It’s worth noting, there ARE parents who do not fit this description.

Experience > Achievement

I’m not a child psychologist; nor am I an expert on parenting. I am an educator and coach, and have found some things that work. For one, I emphasize things like the benefit of exercise and enjoyment. Sports are games, and (as I regularly remind the high schoolers I coach) games are designed to be fun. So, if you aren’t having fun you’re probably doing something wrong.

There are two things I regularly discuss with my son concerning his participation in sports: having fun and trying his best. At his age (7), that’s all that really matters. Youth sports should be more about experience than achievement. Kids should begin to enjoy team camaraderie, working together, and the recognition that everyone has a contribution to offer.

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education — Mark Twain

It’s not uncommon to see a similar parental mentality in schools either. The grades a child earns, and (in some cases) where they attend school represent an added metric of comparison. Much like youth sports, I believe learning should include having fun and trying one’s best. I am not saying school is all “fun and games” so-to-speak. But, when done properly, the best teachers engage their students and motivate them to learn. Of course, there are some subjects that a student will find more enjoyable, and others that won’t naturally offer the same enjoyment given the child.

But, each child is uniquely designed. Some will excel in school — wonderful! Others, however, will not appreciate traditional education nearly as much. And that’s okay too. Grades aren’t a be all/end all.

uf_hhp_classroom_plastic_wooden_desks_deskFor lots of students, school won’t come easy. Perhaps your child would rather not be indoors for extended periods of time seated in rows of desks. That’s understandable. I imagine many park rangers, landscape architects, and boat captains felt this way about school.

Or, maybe your student learns differently than others. Perhaps your daughter received a diagnosis that indicates learning will be more of a challenge for her. It will take focus and the identification of constructive strategies, but there is much to suggest that these challenges can serve as desirable difficulties: because of what they’ll have to overcome, students will be better suited for the kinds of challenges they’ll be certain to encounter later in life.

For others, school will come easier. But, that doesn’t mean a parent’s job will be any easier. Some children are natural overachievers, perfectionists. From looking at a report card alone, you wouldn’t sense any tension. But, ask a friend, parent, or teacher and they may share stories of anxiety, worry, and stress. For these students, a B+ can be as overwhelming as a failing grade to another student. They’ll need help learning how to cope with (what they deem as) failure.

Passion Informs Purpose

It’s important to keep in mind that kids come in all different shapes, sizes, and types. Like adults, they’re all wired differently. Each with a separate set of gifts and talents. As parents, we have the extraordinary responsibility to help them discover what those gifts are. For some, that may come through photography. For others, maybe a career in engineering begins with a love of Legos. Perhaps a future in broadcast journalism means recording imagined interviews behind closed bedroom doors.

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Whatever a child’s passion may be, parents have the distinct opportunity to ride shotgun and help navigate the way. As children begin winnowing their interests and approaching their intended pathways, we can facilitate and celebrate; nurse the inevitable wounds that accompany the journey, and serve as a steadying hand along the way.

In the meantime, I’ve decided not to allow a bumper sticker to tell my child who he is or is not. That realization will come in time. For now, we’re more concerned with trying things on for size. Seeing what fits and what doesn’t. Besides, what’s better than watching your child blossom into who they are truly meant to be?

Follow Tim on Twitter, @Tim_G_Holland

Recommended Reading:

Under Pressure by Carl Honore — An honest look at parenting in different cultures and the challenges that come with raising kids in the 21st Century

Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon — What bullying is, what it isn’t, and what to do about it

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