By: Brian McCormick

Parents frequently ask me about pushing their child. They are unsure of the fine line between offering encouragement and opportunities and pushing an activity onto their child. When children begin organized athletics, the parent almost always makes the decision, as few five, six, or seven year-olds know what they want to do; at the same time, almost any kind of activity is interesting to a child at that age.

Once the child joins an organized sports team or league, and the child shows an interest in the activity, how much should a parent push? If all the other children are going to private trainers, should my child? If I do not take my child to extra lessons, am I failing my child or allowing him or her to fall behind? If I take my child to extra lessons, am I pushing the sport too much?

Parents know that practice is necessary for the child to improve. However, how much does an eight-year-old need to improve? Does he need to be the best player on his team or in his league? Is it better to play multiple sports even if it means not being the star in any of them?

An old blog on The Nation of Wimps web site differentiates spoiling one’s children from overparenting.

“Overparenting is driven by the demands of the adult. And it isn’t necessarily focused on things….A parent consumed by anxiety for a child’s achievement calls a teacher to protest a grade given to the student. Or sends a kid off to ballet camp with an eye to developing an array of extracurricular skills that will ultimately impress college admissions officers. It isn’t necessarily something the child has asked for. It is something that soothes the parental anxiety.”

I used to train a lot of young athletes. These players played on their team, but they or their parents believed that they needed more instruction or more practice. Rather than seek the additional practice on their own or by playing pick-up games at the park, they sought out individual or small-group training.

Nowadays, children do not seem to practice or play on their own. Their lives are scheduled from early childhood. Therefore, to practice outside of the team’s practice, a parent has to schedule the additional training. Is this a sign of overparenting?

My sister teaches at a private elementary school, so I hear frequently about parents calling about grades. Last summer, I taught an undergraduate course and saw the product of this overparenting. The students turned in terrible work and expected A’s. University students who did not spell check a paper were indignant when they did not receive an A. Of course they were. Their parents likely complained to their teachers all the way through high school, regardless of the quality of their work. My sister explained to a parent once that the student had not turned in homework for weeks and had not attended a single review/tutoring session that she had offered. The parent’s response was that the bad grade would hurt his high school application. The parent did not say, “Oh. I’m sorry. I will find out why my son is not doing his homework and make sure that he attends the tutoring sessions to catch up.” Instead, it was the teacher’s fault that the student could not be bothered to do his work.

As The Nation of Wimps blog continues:

“Overparented kids wind up without a sense of self. They grow up overly compliant. They lack coping skills because everything has been done for them by anxious parents. They’re weak from within, and it’s a pervasive weakness. The grow up risk-averse and unable to make decisions on their own. They, too, have a low tolerance for frustration.”

Through our interactions as coaches, parents, and teachers, we are setting up these children and teenagers for failure, often out of our best intentions. Athletes with a low tolerance for frustration are unlikely to succeed at a very high level. Developing talent is a process filled with frustration, as improvement requires practicing on the edge of one’s ability where mistakes are frequent. If these athletes lack coping skills, they will struggle to push themselves to improve, and they will struggle every time that they move up a level and face better competition. Nobody achieves a high level of success in any discipline without some struggles.

John Wooden is famous for his quote, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” It seems like with this generation, parents, teachers, and coaches are afraid to allow children to fail. Making mistakes and failing is not bad, unless the person lacks the coping skills to handle the missteps. By not allowing children to fall flat on their faces, adults are interfering with the development of these coping skills. In terms of developing talented individuals, these skills are more important than constant and early success.

Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, wrote on his blog about the new way to identify talent. The two factors are early ownership and grit.

“One pattern of successful athletes happens when they’re 13 or so, when they develop a sense of ownership of their training. For the ones who succeed, this age is when they decide that it’s not enough to simply be an obedient cog in the development machine — they begin to go farther, reaching beyond the program, deciding for themselves what their workouts will be, augmenting and customizing and addressing their weaknesses on their own.”

Overparenting would seem to exclude the opportunity for early ownership. If a parent’s anxiety leads him or her to sign the child up for more training, how does the child learn to take ownership for his or her development? Instead, these players tend to learn that to practice means to go to a lesson. They practice less because they never practice on their own. They are accustomed to having a coach or trainer direct their practice. These players will plateau because they lack the drive to go further and augment and customize their own workouts.

“Another tell is grit. This quality, investigated by the pioneering work of Angela Duckworth, refers to that signature combination of stubbornness, resourcefulness, creativity and adaptability that helps someone make the tough climb toward a longterm goal” (Coyle, 2012).

With overparenting, the child may not learn this stubbornness. If the parent gets the teacher to change a grade or transfers the player to a new team if he is not playing enough or taking enough shots, how does the player learn resourcefulness and adaptability? In the future, when facing those tough situations that require grit, will he have learned these lessons? If he lacks grit, will he handle and overcome frustrations?

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