Thursday, October 17, 2013

Stop Telling the Kids They Can Do Anything

Maybe we should stop giving our kids the “you can do anything you want to do” speech and actually help them figure out what it is they want to do.

This season, I’m coaching for a girls running program held after-school at the elementary school. The ultimate goal is to run a 5K later this fall.  In addition to the physical activity and training, it’s also a personal development program.  In many of the lessons, we’ve said “tell me something positive about yourself.”  And no less than half say something like “I can do it” or “I can do anything.”  We’ve gotten an “I am better than everyone else.”  We might even get an “I can accomplish any goal.”  And they are cheerful and expressive, too. Raising their hands and saying this so loud and proud.  This all sounds good, right? I mean, we do want kids to feel like they can be successful.  But I’m not so sure they really know what that means or truly internalize that message.

Once they go through these wonderful platitudes, we push them a bit more with some more questions. Great, now tell me what you can do. What’s one of your goals?  The girls kinda look at each other, shrug, and say “uh uhh” in the way that kids answer most questions.

I’m not so sure you can do anything, I tell them. Can you fly to the moon? Can you drive a submarine?  Can you run 100 miles?  No, not today, huh? Alright, so let’s focus on something that you can and want to do.  No-one’s better than everyone else in everything.  There’s always someone better, someone worse, and much room for improvement.  Tell me one thing you do well.

What can you do, be more specific than “anything.”  Shrug, mumble.  Can you bake cookies, are you a good student, do you help your parents?  The girls will think and eventually come up with something they believe they do well, or at least something they would like to do well. Alright, now we’re getting somewhere.

The other day, when we got out to do our mile run/walk, one girl got a few yards from the school, frowned and said she didn’t think she could make it.  What? What about our goals?  Is completing this 5K one of your goals? The shrug, the mumble.  What are your goals, then? The shrug, the mumble.  What if we make running to the corner one of our goals for right now?  Let’s go.  And we started running to the corner.  Alright, so you can accomplish your goals. What’s our next one?

Does this seem harsh?  I don’t think so.  In an effort to make sure our kids have such high self-esteem, we’ve filled their heads with these airy, flitty little banners of confidence without any substance.

I do believe kids should have long-term goals.  But not just “oh I’m gonna do something one day.”  Doctor, President of the United States, Olympic athlete – yes, go for it. But let’s set up some benchmarks along the way.  We’ve got to teach them the stuff that they can actually do right now, the milestones they can strive for right now.   If we want them to have goals and have confidence, we have to help them figure out what those goals actually are and what to be confident about.  We have to teach them how to reach goals.  It wouldn’t be a bad lesson for us adults, too.

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