The One Question Every Parent Should Quit Asking

AM One Question Parents

“It’s like she’s not even practicing.”

Audrey’s piano teacher was standing in front of me, giving her honest assessment. Her eyes were kind, and her voice soft, but my parental guilt turned her statement into a question. One I couldn’t answer. So I just faked a diarrhea attack and ran to the restroom.

Once we got home, I was determined to show Miss Amanda that my daughter could be the next Liberace, only more bedazzled than the original. So we opened her music book and got to work.

We sat side-by-side at the piano for all of ten minutes when Audrey began to fade. She wasn’t even looking at the notes. Her back slouched. Her fingers barely pressed the keys. I tried to be encouraging, but every half-hearted effort from her quickly depleted my well of schmoopieness.

“Sweetheart,” I said, in a tone that didn’t match the pet name . “Don’t you want to be good at this?”

She didn’t say anything. She just made a weird sound. Like a dolphin moaning. So I asked again.

“Honey. Don’t you want to be good at piano?”

“No.” She answered, with a look.

Has my six-year-old mastered the art of spitefulness?

“Fine,” I said, calling her bluff. “I guess we just won’t practice anymore. And we’ll keep wasting Miss Amanda’s time going over the same things every week.”

I got up and walked to the kitchen where my son was busy not doing his homework.

“Jake! What are you doing?! Finish your homework! We have to leave for basketball practice in ten minutes! Let’s go! You’re not even dressed!”

Not my best parenting moment. The entire evening went on like this, with me incessantly jabbing at the kids and them fighting me every step of the way. Piano. Basketball. Homework. Hygiene. Lather, rinse, repeat. A never-ending well of cajoling. I thought to myself,

They are both getting saddles for Christmas. That way, at least I’ll be comfortable when I’m riding their asses all the time.

I am not proud of it, but the simple truth is that I worry about my kids and their level of engagement. And maybe you do, too. As a dad, I frequently feel myself getting sucked in to the vortex of expectations. All the other parents are talking about great opportunities they are providing for their kids. Special summer camps. Foreign language learning. Private tutors. Music lessons. Coaching clinics. And when I hear how other kids are participating in these activities, I can’t help but feel that my children will be left behind or left out if they don’t take part. I “awfulize” a future where other kids are having fun together, solving quadratic equations and getting six-figure jobs out of junior high while mine are both sitting in the corner eating Elmer’s Glue straight from the bottle.

And it’s all my fault.

So, in an effort to prepare our kids for the dog-eat-dog, competitive world before them, we fill their days with activity. Schedule them from dawn to dusk to maximize their potential. So they can learn. And grow.

But I fear that in our quest to help them, we may actually be hurting them.

“Free time” for kids has been steadily declining since the 1950s. In one particular study, from 1981 to 1997, kids experienced a 25% decrease in play time and a 55% decrease in time talking with others at home. In contrast, time spent on homework increased by 145%, and time spent shopping with parents increased by 168%.

But is that bad?

I think it is.

A research project by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State, looked at psychological trends in youth during a similar period and noticed a sharp increase in anxiety and depression. Our kids are more stressed out than before. And that’s not the only change. Another Twenge study shows a surprising shift in motivation over the years, with kids in the 60’s and 70’s reporting being more motivated by intrinsic ideals (self-acceptance, affiliation and community) while kids today are more motivated by extrinsic ideals (money, image and fame).

And we’re the ones pushing them in that direction.

As parents, we focus 100% of our energy asking the wrong question:

“What might we miss if we don’t take advantage of these opportunities?”

And we need to stop.

Why?

Because the motivation behind this question is fear. And the fear is all mine.

I worry that that my kids be made fun of if they don’t have socially acceptable “stuff.” I worry won’t become elite athletes unless they specialize in a sport by age ten. I worry that they won’t get into college if they don’t do well in school.

But the fears are largely unfounded.

The “stuff” issue is easily overcome with common sense. No one in the history of the world has ever been able to buy a true friend. And in the athletic realm, kids who specialize in sports are no better off than those who don’t, and in some cases, the specialization is actually a detriment.

As for the academic worry, that may be the biggest unfounded fear of all. We buy into the hype that college is much more competitive today, so we push our kids to take advantage of every learning opportunity under the sun. The truth is, in the past ten years, admissions counselors saw their average number of applications nearly double because of parents like us. We’re frantically submitting applications out of fear. Even so, colleges are still accepting two-thirds of all applicants on average. A number that has hardly decreased in a decade.

But we still believe the hype.

Bottom line: we parents need to chill out and change our questions. Here are two that can help us all gain some perspective and start finding more genuine joy in our lives.

Question #1: “What are we losing in our quest for success?”

If you are like me, most valuable parts of your childhood did not take place in a special classroom or perfect practice field. Sure, you had teachers and parents to encourage you to do your best and work toward a goal, but that was balanced by plenty of other worthwhile pursuits such as tearing apart a Stretch Armstrong doll to see what was inside, building bike ramps in the driveway, and racing leaf boats through a drainage ditch in a rainstorm.

But we’ve sacrificed these things in pursuit of an ideal, and we’ve turned our children into little mini-adults in the process. Tiny professionals who have no time for brain-building, soul-boosting play during the week, so they desperately cram it in to a weekend schedule packed with structured sports and recitals.

It’s sad.

But the bigger issue is this:

Question #2: “What’s the ultimate goal?”

Encouraging a child’s potential is a good thing. And there is nothing wrong with extracurricular activities. They teach worthwhile skills and instill core values in a child. Values such as discipline, commitment, goal-setting, and persistence. And providing these opportunities is my job as a parent.

But there is a big difference in wanting what’s best for your kids, and wanting them to be the best.

Wanting what’s best for your kids is all about the child. It’s about helping them find something they are passionate about so they are intrinsically driven to reveal the strengths that God gave them, whether in art, music, sports, writing, academics, or community service.

Wanting them to be the best is all about me. My expectations. My fears. So I yell at them from the stands, correct them after lessons, and coax them into activities that suck the fun out of childhood. And in the process, I teach them that their worth is wrapped up in how they perform. I teach them that second place is losing. I teach them that judgment is more important than love and acceptance.

And it is so wrong.

Because being the best should NOT be the goal. If I asked you to name the last five winners of the Academy Award for best actor, could you do it? How about the last five World Series winning pitchers? Last five Nobel Prize winners in medicine? I’d venture to guess, based on absolutely no scientific evidence, that only 10% of you could do it. At the most. And these are examples of people who have achieved the pinnacle of their profession. Known the world over.

And we forget them.

But what if I were to ask you to list the five people who have meant the most to you in your life? The ones who taught you what it means to be a true friend. A person of integrity. I know without a doubt that 100% of us could do it in a heartbeat. And the list would be filled with people who never had a highway or high school named after them. People who never had their name carved on a ceremonial trophy.

But here’s the kicker.

The mere thought of their faces likely makes your heart swell. Might even bring a tear to your eye.

And this, my friends, is the goal. To be on the list for our kids. So that they might be on someone else’s list someday. And no amount of fear and anxious prodding will accomplish that for us. In this constantly correcting, constantly evaluating world, there has to be space for acceptance. Space for presence. Space where time isn’t measured in tenths of a second, but in turns taken on a colorful Candyland board.

And only love can do that.

So my prayer today is that we have nothing but love to give. May we offer it daily.

Without condition.

Without worry.

Without regret.

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35 Comments

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35 responses to “The One Question Every Parent Should Quit Asking

  1. Amen. Thanks I needed this today!

  2. the ultimate goal is good adults – childhood is a time for them to learn love, and how to treat others, to be organized, to think critically, and to read well – how sad if someone peaks in their life as a child. We get them through childhood as best we can, and then hopefully they blossom.

  3. I am a lot better grandparent about this issue than I ever was a parent. I got sucked into by the rhetoric and lost out on some real opportunities to more positively influence my son. And, for all my supervision, and hopes and plans, he didn’t go to college. Sometimes I think it was a civil disobedience thing that I provoked. Now, he is an adult with children of his own and trying to the education I hoped for him long ago…but his children, completely different….you are right…My grandchildren get love first. Love is the common denominator.

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  5. Scott, I’m totally on board with what your saying. (Though I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself here. After all, we do have to provide some structure that isn’t always welcomed by our kids in order to help them keep focused for more than 30 seconds at a time!) But in terms of packing “enrichment” activities into their schedules, I think, as you say, that it robs kids of important downtime. It’s this unstructured time that allows their imaginations to flourish. It’s when they learn that they don’t always have to be entertained (by someone else).

  6. Meredith

    After reading this, I found my kiddos and gave them a hug.

  7. monica

    Thank you for this. My son is a competitive swimmer, and him and I have been stressing about him missing 6 weeks in the pool with an injury. After talking to him tonight, I realized he was meeting the original goals we had when he first started. He is happy, he is making good friends, and he is burning off enough energy to sit still snd focus at school. So I’m committing myself to not stressing about his first meet of the season…I’m letting him just enjoy the sport he loves.

  8. Lisa

    Parenting…the hardest job in the world. Yet we can, as adults, look at what we are doing and recognize the need to change it! Congrats on your self awareness sir – sounds like you are heading in the right direction. You’re kids are lucky to have you as their Dad.

  9. Our youngest was born when her siblings were 22 and 17. I think we, for the most part, retired the saddle when she was born. We realized much of what we worried about with the older kids mattered little in the greater scheme. Now she is a high school junior and we are almost at the point we were when we learned I was pregnant. I struggle with wanting to breathe in these last few years of her childhood and fear that she will never be able to separate from me. No matter what you do, you will at times feel like you have screwed it all up.

  10. Mark Smith

    One of the best pieces I ever received in parenting: Simply say that you love watching them do something, and then stop. “I love watching you play basketball.” “I love listening to you practice piano.” “I love it when you are sitting and doing your homework.” With sports in particular this was such a valuable lesson for me. Always wanting my kids to perform well and coaching from the sidelines was all about me. When I shifted to saying just that I loved to watch them play, their self-confidence and my enjoyment of the event just soared. And it has opened up all kinds of conversation opportunities. Great article Scott.

  11. Sean

    The above comment is what happens when you intend to forward the article to your wife and accidentally click Reply instead of Forward. Thanks for the honesty and good words. ”

    They are both getting saddles for Christmas. That way, at least I’ll be comfortable when I’m riding their asses all the time.” LMAO!

    • Thanks, Sean. I’ve deleted your forward message, so you can rest comfortably knowing that a private conversation with your wife has not been made public. However, if you like, feel free to forward me private texts, emails or conversations and I will gladly post them for online voyeurs. Have a good one, and keep parenting on, my friend!

  12. Jim Lyons

    Before our children are born, we wish them to be whole (four legs and stuff) and be healthy. From then on we want them to be the smartest, the best athletes, darlings, captain of the football team, etc. Jim Lyons

  13. Jann.Coulson

    Thank you for your eloquent please for empowering parenting!

    • I love this … not a parent yet, but the more I look at life, the more my bride and I want to be radically different and maybe give ourselves the grace of never living up to our own expectations for ourselves.

      I’m worried that the concept you describe exists everywhere, not just in our lack of grace for our children to be themselves but in our expectations of other adults. For most people, the most damaging judgment doesn’t come from people trying to get a leg up on us or pretend to be better than us or just being jerks. It comes from the people closest to us trying to encourage us to meet their expectations of success: from parents who don’t think we’re living to our full potential, from fellow Christians who think we should have gotten over our depression by now, from friends who think we married below us.

      With something so rampant in my everyday dealing with my peers, I can’t imagine it not coming out in the parenting of my (future, Lord-willing) kids.

  14. Edge

    Scott,
    When I met you 20 some-odd years ago I thought you were one of the most talented and insightful persons I had ever met, and you continue to prove me right. Great article. This is something I’ve recently come to terms with myself. Keep up the fantastic writing.

  15. Chris

    What do we remember most fondly or discuss more passionately over the years? The times we were given things, or the times we struggled, accomplished, failed, regrouped, succeeded, etc. We gotta give our kids those moments and this article expresses that so well. Thank you!

  16. racheltoalson

    Such a great article, Scott. My husband and I are both musicians and have other artistic pursuits (I’m a writer, my husband’s an artist), and before we had children we made a pact that we would not push our children to be us. We are the parents of five (going on six) boys. Our oldest is 8, taking piano lessons. He practices when he wants to practice, and that’s OK with us. He wants to be a cinematographer when he grows up, so we check out books about cinematography and let him explore video-making and story-boarding, but all with the disclaimer that he is NOT expected to make anything of it.

    I think part of this pushing-kids-too-hard issue is that we parents have a hard time finding a balance between supporting our children in their interests and feeling the need to make them exceptional at something (because everyone else’s kid is, right?). We forget that our children are already exceptional. Maybe they’re exceptional friends or exceptional storytellers or exceptional students–but they are all exceptional. Our job is to celebrate who they are, whether they practice piano or not.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I saw it on Huffington Post and thought I’d stop by your space to leave my comment. 🙂

  17. Thomad

    So true, thanks for the insight. It’s easy to think you are doing it all for the best of our children, when sometimes we’re hurting more than helping.

  18. Pege'

    Mom of 21,23,26 and 28 year adults who are fantastic. They are engaed in life and are active. Still learning and trying new things and activities. Each has traveled in the US and over seas and are good people. We allowed them one and only one activity of choice and supported them in it. If they wanted to stop they stopped. If they wanted to keep going we kept going. There were the obvious requirements and responsibilities connected with their selection. trumpet lessons, practicing and preparation. Base ball showing up on time and being prepared. Soccer, dancing…etc. EVERYONE wants a Tiger Woods or Mozart, Michael Jordan…..PLEASE remember folks , Tiger learned to play golf by just hanging with dad and playing. He liked it so much he kept pursuing it. Mozart had a gift but his father was brutal and beat him and was harsh and controlling. Michael Jordan played B Ball with his dad and the passion and commitment to practice and train came from with in. Most of us are average parents with average kids who will never be the savant or prodigy. Let the kids be kids. They will show you the way they are bent and be their cheerleader not their dictator.

  19. I grew up in the 50s. I had time to read and draw and create scrapbooks from old catalogs and magazines. I had lots of do nothing time especially in the summer (unless I told my mom that I was bored-then I had work to do,so I learned not to be bored unless I wanted to weed the garden or iron clothes!) I never had a sports lesson or a music lesson. I joined the scouts and 4-H because I wanted to. When I was 12 I started baby sitting to earn some money. I saved a long time to buy some roller skates. I rode my bike and played with friends outside in the fresh air. We had no TV and the phone was for emergencies. I grew up to be appreciative , respectful of others, imaginative, creative, and never bored. I worked my way through college and started my own business. At almost 72, I still love learning. I find ideas new ideas fun. I love nature, art and people. I wish children today could be as blessed as I was. They have so much, but sometimes I think less would be more.

  20. Just started following your blog. You crack me up. I had a similar war with my mom at about the age of 12 over piano. She finally caved in and let me quit piano. To which I apparently said “Now I love you.” How funny is that.

    Will enjoy reading your blog, thank you.

  21. In fact you have inspired me to send an apology note to my mother. Never too late. Think I’ll put it on my blog so that she gets a bit of glory and retribution (ha).

    My 9 year old is pulling the same stint on me. I have a story I want to tell her.

  22. Bummer. I’m a piano teacher. I was hoping to find somewhere in your article how you fixed that practicing problem. (Just read the article via HuffPost, so I’m late to the party.)

    I watch parents of my students struggle with overscheduled, exhausted children a lot. And as a parent of three grown children, I have a lot of been-there-done-that stories. I think parenting-by-fear is extremely common. We choose different paths for our kids, depending on what our personal fears are. Every choice has an unintended consequence, from overscheduling (indulging every passing interest of theirs and ours) all the way to ignoring our children (letting them raise themselves while we pretend we are giving them a “normal childhood”).

    I often think my children turned out as well as they did, not because of what I did, but in spite of it.

  23. I.So.Love.This! 🙂 It seems parenting with fear is common the world over — I’m Filipino and I have all the same fears (and parenting “failures”) as described here! Thank you for writing this — I needed to read this today! God bless you and your family!

  24. pam

    Great article esp to a new mommy (well , a new mommy to a toddler lol)….AND that toddler keeps me constantly reminded that the world is out there to discover and play in…and mommy’s “always wanting to make the most learning experience out of our time-ness” seems to be pushed aside by him! This article is exactly what I needed to read (that it’s not just me feeling the ‘pressure’ of life for my child). Love your Blog!

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