One of the hardest things as a parent is learning when to push your children and how much to push them. On the scale of Tiger Mother to pushover, we probably veer more toward Tiger Mother. Of course, our goal is to encourage them to face the things they initially fear or reject. But, at the same time, we don’t want them simply to do things because we pushed them, or this is a label we want to avoid mostly because we fear that if our children do things just because we pushed them, they will abandon it (and/or us) at the first opportunity.
We faced this question last summer as my then 10-year-old daughter Liv started surf camp for the first time. Her younger sister had started a week earlier than Liv did and loved it. Liv went to camp that first day, and, if she wasn’t exactly bounding home with excitement, she certainly gave no indication she was unhappy. We had friends in for dinner that day, but as soon as they left, Liv calmly walked up to me and said, “Just so you know, I hated it. I was terrified. And I’m not going back.”
This is not a typical response from her about anything. She never lets fear get in her way of trying a new adventure. She usually enjoys most things she tries. But she was starting to get pretty worked up as she recounted the day, “You don’t know what it’s like. It was terrifying.” The teachers, like I, had no idea that she was afraid when she was in the ocean. Liv prides herself on following the rules, in not making a fuss, so she just followed along. Because she was older than her sister and a strong swimmer, they didn’t take it easy with her as they did with Lucy. Consequently, they brought her out too far, too fast.
I responded that her experience was akin to skiing moguls the first day you ever ski. Of course you’ll be terrified because you’re not prepared. We needed to go back to the bunny hill. We had made a mistake. I asked her to give the teachers and I a chance to fix it. But I also had to show that I was not dead set on her continuing at any cost. I had to be willing to give something on my side. I told her that since my goal was not to torture her, that if she gave it an honest shot – if she went in with an open mind and still didn’t like it, I wouldn’t make her stay there.
This push-pull of parenting is one of the hardest moments because you’re honestly not sure when you’re doing more harm than good. I want to make sure she’s giving something a fair and full shot, but I also don’t want to push her away from something or have her grow resentful because she was pushed too much. These are hard calls. We go through this more and more as the kids get older and challenges present themselves – whether it’s playing in the orchestra, giving up soccer, or applying for a science program which will mean extra homework, even if it also means great experience.
Indeed, as I was telling my daughter that I thought she should go back, my mother was visiting and was telling me that maybe I was pushing too much. And let’s be clear: I have less than zero interest in my daughter becoming a surfer. I say, “less than zero” because from a safety perspective, I’d probably be happy if she never surfed. But I also wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be more afraid of the ocean after this experience. Goodness knows I have fears of the ocean, and I was hoping that with proper training she might avoid that.
It’s fair to say she went reluctantly. Quite reluctantly. But she agreed to give it a shot. I called the director of the camp, and we made a plan for how we’d handle this day. We agreed that one instructor would be specifically assigned to her, that we would take it slowly. My mom went to the ocean to watch her in case she really needed an escape hatch. Yet I still worried I was too insistent that she return to the scene of the crime. But sure enough, when I came a bit early to to watch her, she bounded over to me and told me how much fun she was having.
In the end, I think she felt more powerful. Not because she’s going to become a surfer. (Indeed, she rejected it this summer and probably won’t go back.) But, rather, because she learned that she could be deathly afraid of something, and yet overcome it. That something that was once scary could become fun; that a second chance made a big difference. She learned all that, instead of learning to give up. There are a lot of people – myself included, by the way – who wouldn’t have entered the ocean in the first place, and sure as heck wouldn’t go back for a second beating. Now, Liv already understands that the learning is in the falling and getting up.
I don’t believe in throwing a kid into the water and watching them figure out for themselves how to sink or swim. My mom had that kind of childhood (figuratively and literally), and she will barely go in the ocean anymore (figuratively and literally). But supporting your child also doesn’t mean just giving them their way. It’s loving them enough to show them that they have a net behind them so that they can safely jump into the unknown. It’s telling them that you’ve got their back, and that you hear their fear, but, nonetheless, feel confident they are up for the challenge. The push, sometimes gentle, sometimes more of a shove works if they feel that they have a net below them. We can’t control the waves. But we can control the net.
Jennifer McAllister-Nevins is a Founder and co-CEO of Savor, a modern keepsake organizational system that makes preserving family memories more easy, fun, and stylish. A lawyer and fundraiser by training, she is also that go-to mom for advice about the best summer camp, the perfect hostess gift or a last-minute dinner party recipe you can make with items in your pantry.
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