The right kind of pressure

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There’s a strange mix of expectation and freedom that yields the highest quality learning. It’s not enough to give freedom to your kids. Sometimes they drown in it.

“Mom, I can’t think of anything to do.”

“But how does this game work? I just want to understand the rules.”

“I can’t hit the ball. What am I doing wrong?”

“Where do I start? There’s too much to read and too many ideas to think about.”

“How can I grow up to be an actress?”

Kids want answers to these questions. A coach will help a baseball player to know what is going on with that swing. It’s not interference to give feedback and help. It’s too much freedom to simply say, “Keep swinging. It’s up to you!”

An aspiring actress needs to test her stage presence. She needs opportunities. These don’t come by singing in the living room alone.

Kids (all of us) want some structure. They want some hand holds or guard rails. They want scaffolding. The far extreme of this “freedom” continuum is the distorted view of unschooling where parental involvement looks like parental interference. Suddenly digging holes in the backyard is held up as evidence of self-discipline and exploratory learning! Parents are so hands-off, sometimes kids don’t even know their options!

On the other end of the continuum, though, is the Tiger Mom—the mother so involved and invested, she withholds dinner and screams at her daughter until the daughter finally masters two-handed piano playing…and winds up in Carnegie Hall at age 16.

We wonder: Is that the right route? After all, Carnegie Hall is a good gig if you can get it! Beats the heck out of dirt-hole-digging!

I often find the word “balance” an irritant (please quit telling me to live a balanced life—I just want to live a life and not have to “balance” it all the time). So I am not going there. But, I don’t want us to one day scream bloody murder at our kids and on the other day, abandon them to their own devices, unwilling to help them out of a boredom jam.

What I want to say is this:

Expectation can be either an enormous motivator and support when becoming all you are meant to be, or it can cripple and deform the fledgling aspirant. The amount and the type of pressure determine whether or not your child will flourish and thrive, or shrivel and withdraw.

Just because a child achieves a goal with or without undue pressure is not a validation of either extreme methodology either. Underneath is a relationship to you—and to the self—that is being daily created behind the achievements.

What we want is bold and big:

Personal accomplishment combined with healthy self confidence and relaxed, trusting relationship with the parents.

How do we get there?

We feel most connected to each other when we are in a relationship that creates emotional safety. A child’s performance or lack of achievement doesn’t determine whether your kids feel loved or safe, whether a parent smiles or hugs, whether a parent shows pride and admiration.

To that end, parents have to pay attention to their kids. They supply resources, answer questions, provide imagined scenarios, and create possibilities.

Parents have what kids don’t: money and access to information.

Parents know how to find what is “out there” and how to bring that to children. Parents can help match a child to the information, opportunities, instructors, tools, and environments that facilitate growth in a child’s chosen interest.

For example, when my kids got fascinated with vintage dance because of the BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice series, I hunted for a dance studio in Cincinnati that taught vintage dance. Found one. Couldn’t afford it. Figured out how to get my kids in for free (we spent Monday afternoons stuffing mailboxes with dance flyers, come wind, rain, hail and snow!). They danced.

It was not enough to know they wanted to dance. Nor was it enough to leave them to it on our back deck. They needed my help to find lessons so they really were learning to dance!

That’s the right kind of support.

When they didn’t want to go to class, I still took them because of the commitment and the need to not get behind for the big ball at the end! That’s the right kind of pressure. I helped them fulfill their commitment. We stuffed those mailboxes every week, even when no one felt like it.

I didn’t, however, expect them to go on to be competitive vintage dancers. That kind of pressure would have been my agenda, and not theirs.

My job was to support a vision, and an enthusiasm, and a commitment.

Their job was to show up, to participate, to “pay” for the opportunity and privilege, and to enjoy it. They could determine if one season sated the curiosity or led to new aspirations.

As you work with your children, keep in mind these two aspects of parenting:

1) Freedom to dream big, to have desires, to explore unusual interests, to find ways to bring those dreams to life.

2) Involvement that provides resources, gentle accountability (within reason—if the experience turns out to be one that is crushing the child’s spirt, dump it!), and helpful support (payment, driving, attending events, providing the right supplies…).

The only pressure a child should feel is the pressure to live up to his or her potential and to realize his or her dreams. That comes from within. You can’t create it or induce it in the child.

You must not put on pressure that comes from your agenda. That’s when you cross the line.

Your job is to match your child’s enthusiasm—don’t do more for the child than the child is willing to do for self, but don’t limit your child by ignoring how you can help, since you are the adult with connections, money, and resources.

Balancing this teeter-totter is the goal.

The right kind of freedom and expectation.

The right kind of pressure.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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