We live in a day when adults are pushing kids to discover their strengths and focus their lives. Thanks to the Gallup organization and author Marcus Buckingham, we have learned to concentrate on building strengths and to only play in that space. Not surprisingly, this has caused parents to hone our styles and launch our kids into football, ballet, piano, theatre, tennis or gymnastics at five years old. As a result, a lot of our kids today have the notion that they can just sharpen their skill until they go pro. We’ve embraced the idea of mental focus.
While this represents progress in many ways, it’s also had its downside. I’m not so sure we’ve embraced the idea of emotional health. Over the long haul, we’re now seeing the outcomes of our leadership styles. Parents, who are convinced they are raising the next Derek Jeter, or Tiger Woods or Serena Williams, push their children to make the grade, make the team, make the dream.
In our work with students, I’ve seen the problem surface in a handful of ways:
1. The Oversized Gift*
Young people cultivate a single gift (or talent), and it becomes their source of identity (sometimes, the sole source). The gift becomes bigger than they are. Soon, they begin to wing it in other areas of their lives, thinking they really don’t need to develop skills in other areas. After all, they’re an incredible ________________. (You fill in the blank: tennis player, singer, actor, musician, dancer, etc). Their growth becomes distorted and lopsided. Later, when that gift is no longer able to carry them, they’re in trouble.
2. Early Burnout
Young people who are pushed in a single area often burnout early. They get sick of softball, gymnastics, you name it—and end up quitting the very activity they once loved. It was too much, too soon. They needed to have a childhood where they played a variety of games, but they never got it. It may just be my opinion, but kids should never “burn out” in middle school. They should be exploring at 12-13, building general, personal skills that’ll be relevant, regardless of where they end up.
3. Emotionally Unhealthy, Angst-filled Young Adults
Young people who are pushed too soon and too much are vulnerable to a lifestyle of angst and emotional depression. As their brain develops during adolescence, it becomes challenging to navigate the emotional highs and lows of hormone changes and intense competition. It’s especially sad when it’s mom or dad pushing them—simply because they enjoy the competition—but have no idea what it’s doing to their child.
Because we work with several NCAA Division 1 athletic departments, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of coaches, and more of them than ever are telling me they now recruit athletes from multiple sports, not just theirs. The reason? They believe they get a healthier student athlete, one that is more balanced and able to handle the ups and downs of wins and losses. In addition, they get an athlete who isn’t burned out, but one who’s ready and able to give a lot to the sport at 18 or 19 years old. They get happy, well-adjusted players.
Their Source of Stress
I have written much about how stressed out American high school and college students are today. 94% of college students say the number one word they use to describe their life is overwhelmed. In a UK survey, they report that their number one source of stress is their parents. This is negatively affecting everyone.
Dr. Eric Herman, a clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, tells us that when a parent pushes too much, the result is an overwhelmed child who is too stressed out to get things done. Your child needs to relax and have fun. It will help him recharge his batteries, just as relaxation helps you recharge your batteries.
For the past decade, Daryl Capuano, educator and founder of The Learning Consultants in New Haven, Conn., has been counseling parents on understanding key igniters in motivating children and the harmful effects of nagging. When a child hears a message repeatedly, she starts to view it as a big negative. If you often tell your child, "You are not going to get into college if you don't study harder," she might avoid studying or any discussion of college. She could begin to slack off on homework or even skip school. This pressure creates a significant motivation deflation, warns Capuano. Even a very young child can lose interest in playing baseball if he fears he's not measuring up to his parents' expectations.
A Balancing Act
I am simply arguing that we must strike a healthy balance in the lives of our students. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach or youth worker, we must balance:
1. Helping them find and develop their strengths so they can be productive.
2. Helping them mature emotionally and live healthy, balanced lives.
Here’s to developing well-rounded kids who become well-adjusted adults.