All good parents want their kids to be happy, healthy, and in most cases, high achievers, which is usually just the manifestation of their own desires to be happy, in other words, most of us think “What does a happy person look like?” and then think: “I want my son/daughter to be that.”
Often, parents want their kids to be high achievers in a specific area, e.g. football, academic excellence, or boxing. This may be something that’s never voiced to the child, but it many cases it will still become clear to them.
Most neurotypical children, especially those with siblings, are doing things to impress their parents by around age 2. It could be showing you some scribbles they just drew on a piece of paper; “Look mum!” Or they’ll want to play catch, and be very excited when you see them catch the ball, or it could be something as simple as attempting to use a knife and fork at the dinner table, or using the toilet by themselves. This desire to gain parents affection begins at a very early age, and will continue throughout childhood.
So a child will try to impress their parents by completing tasks, and demonstrating newly acquired skills. The child will also learn what not to do through their parents overt disapproval when they exhibit any negative behaviour, such as hitting a sibling, or throwing some food at dinner, or breaking a toy. This is what American behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner called “Operant conditioning.” It is the theory that children learn from the consequences of their behaviour. So if we want our children to be happy, healthy, high achievers, then rewarding positive behaviours and punishing negative behaviours is likely to help push them in the right direction, right? In general, that must surely be true. But what happens when a parent continually rewards one type of positive behaviour more than another, for example:
“Tim joined a football club and started playing for the under 10’s team. His mum and dad would alternate who went to watch him play matches every other weekend, and would always reward him with compliments about his performance, and a hug after the game, even if he lost.
Six months later, Tim lost interest in playing football, and asked his dad if he could give boxing a try, as one of his friends attended the local club. His dad, being an ex-boxer himself was very glad to hear that, and told Tim’s mum that he would like to take Tim to every class, twice per week, and sit and watch. So when Tim started boxing, he’d notice his dad watching him throughout the class, and they’d talk about Tim’s boxing all the way home in the car.
Tim was now spending way more time with his dad, talking to him more, it felt like they had something in common now, their relationship had been strengthened due to Tim attending the boxing club. Tim was now getting more affection from his dad who regularly made it clear how proud he was of him”
So in this case, both playing football, and attending the boxing club, were seen as positive behaviours by Tim’s parents, and were rewarded with affection. Boxing however, was rewarded much more strongly, and noticeably for Tim, changed the father/son relationship for the better.
Tim doesn’t know that his father only really wants him to be a boxer, but he knows.
Tim’s parents in this case had unknowingly set a higher value on boxing as a relational currency, i.e. Tim realised that he can buy much more affection with boxing than he ever could with football. Tim was never going to become a pro footballer, he gave up after six months, and clearly had very little passion for the sport…but what if he felt the same about boxing after six months, would he quit? He may want to, but what if he sees boxing as the only form of relational currency accepted by his dad?
By rewarding a child more for one kind of positive behaviour than another, when both are objectively fairly equal, is to set a higher value on that behaviour in the child’s mind, as a currency that can be exchanged for affection, which will make the child want to repeat it again and again. This could lead to many children pursuing a sport, or other ambition, which they didn’t really choose themselves. It could make them waste a large portion of their formative years chasing their parents dreams. It’s a form of passive, and usually unintentional emotional blackmail, or bribery, with the reward being the things a child values most; love and affection.
How can we avoid falling into this trap and unintentionally coercing our children to follow our preferences, or pursuing our own unfulfilled ambitions?
Value all currencies of affection equally. Be mindful of this, when your child wants you to see them doing something, or tells you about something they’ve achieved that day at school, they are looking for your affection. Give it to them based on the achievement, not the particular area in which they’ve excelled, even if you have no personal interest in it. This will encourage them to pursue the things they are genuinely interested in, and have passion for.
Facilitate their interests. Even if you have no previous experience or interest in the sport/pursuit your child has chosen, you can do everything in your power to facilitate their development by providing whatever resources are necessary. You can research, watch videos, even take lessons yourself to try to understand what they are learning better, and work out how to support them.
Be real with them. If they genuinely want to reach a high level in their chosen sport or interest, a child needs to learn early on, that nothing is achieved without sacrifice. An Olympic medallist has years of struggle, setbacks, injuries, heartbreak, dedication, and sacrifice to thank for the position he is in when he receives the reward. A singer up on a stage in front of thousands of fans had to start practising in their bedroom for hours every night for years whilst their friends played computer games. Everyone who gets to a high level of attainment, in any field, has to sacrifice. Nothing comes for free, and there’s nothing wrong with children realising that early in life.
In conclusion, we need to realise the difference between pushing our kids and supporting them. We can push our kids in one direction intentionally (which most of us know is wrong) or we can steer them in the direction of our subconscious preference, which is unintentional, but potentially equally damaging and detrimental to the child’s development. Let them be the driver, and support them on their way.
We must support our kids, not push them.
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