When Encouragement DIScourages (Parents, hold your tongues!)

“You might be a little better than average.”

I had asked my dad what he thought of my singing voice and that was his reply: a step above average. I remember this moment vividly, since as a preteen I took it as a cruel insult. How dare he!

I’ve always loved to sing, and being musically inclined, I can indeed carry a tune. But I am not destined to live life defined as “a singer,” and Dad (a musician) knew that.

Did his critique of my talent (or lack thereof) crush my spirit? Did it take away the joy I found in belting out harmonies in the car or humming in the shower? No way! In fact, by giving me an honest assessment, he may have saved me some valuable time. Had he told me I was bound for stardom as the next American Idol, I may have invested time and emotional energy on something that offered me little reward, and possibly a lot of heartache.

I believe in encouraging our children. I believe, as parents, we should be their biggest fans. But let’s face it, they will try lots of things they’re not great at. Why mislead them to believe they’ve found their life’s calling in a field where they would struggle to excel?

We’re all made for something. Often we stumble across it in childhood and dismiss it only to (hopefully) rediscover it later in life. I clearly remember learning about poetry in school and meeting with another gradeschooler in the evenings to write. We kept our poems in a folder with horses on it, as I recall (my first portfolio!). I had natural talent and desire when it came to writing, but I would not discover it for myself until college. Though by that time, my parents had indeed seen this talent and had been telling me for years that I was a writer.

Here’s my point: Let’s not be afraid to be honest with our kids, and let praise be for special occasions. When given in love, a truthful assessment of their abilities (or just a lack of excessive encouragement) will not crush them. It will guide them. It will leave them the space to find what gets them revved up. Space to watch for what they love instead of watching for our reaction. It may just save them a lifetime of chasing a dream that will never become reality. I think that’s way more loving than patting a kid on the back for everything they attempt. If we do that, they will never know when they’ve done something truly exceptional, and that is a confusing, frustrating way to go through life. Could it be that our heaps of encouragement stand in the way of our children figuring out what it is they love? Where it is they really excel? Could too much encouragement actually discourage a child from finding what drives them?

If we choose our words carefully and use those that guide, we give our children the gift of honesty. Maybe one day they’ll be honest enough to say thank you.

(Thanks, Dad!)


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