Why teaching your kids to do their best isn’t as easy as it sounds
As a parent I want my son to do his very best at everything he tries; not because I think it’ll make him the next super bowl MVP or the next highest-paid endorser for Nike, Reebok or Under Armor; more because it’ll help him achieve whatever he wants out of life – or at least walk away knowing he gave it his all.
Asking your child to give it their best sounds pretty simple, right? I mean what’s so hard about saying ‘Give it your best Johnny.’? What happens when your child’s doing his best and his youth flag-football team is up 40 points at the half – Then what do you say? I mean always doing your best means always, right?
As my son began his second flag-football season he, along with his other teammates, come in with a bit more experience, a bit more strength and a bit more ability. Combined with stellar coaching, the team came together very nicely. Our second game started with our team on offense. The first hand-off resulted in a touchdown – maybe we caught them off guard. Our defense held them to four plays and zero points. Our very next possession ended in – yup, you guessed it – another touchdown. It was quickly becoming clear we were up against an inexperienced team.
Coach and I had a conversation on the sideline. We discussed how we could slow things down without directly telling the kids to not do their best. We tried harder plays, we used slower players and kept our key players out of their roles. It seemed to not matter, we had entirely too much talent for our inexperienced opponents. We could have directly asked the kids to hold back and not try so hard and we didn’t. We considered the type of message that would send to them and decided to keep things as-is.
Competition is often unpredictable at this age group and you never really know what you’re walking into until you start going. The previous week we played a team who were evenly matched, if not slightly better. We played hard, we played our best and we lost. In the end the kids had a blast and celebrated how close things were. They learned through their experience and brought it with them to the next game – clearly.
On the drive home I asked my son which game was more fun – winning by 52 points or losing to the Patriots – and he responded by telling me he enjoyed losing more because he had a chance to try his best and to play against kids who were really good. How’s that for young wisdom?
That night intrigued me the most because as he went to bed he told me how, towards the end of the game we won, he started to not try so hard at pulling his opponents flags. I found that interesting and asked him ‘What do you think you were teaching the other team by doing that?’ (I often ask my son these questions to help teach him his actions have consequence – both good and bad). He responded by saying he could have taught them what it’s like to be able to run down the field. Sweet, I agree. I then told him his actions could have also taught them to not always do your best. He heard what I said and we ended the conversation there.
I went to bed with that ‘bad dad’ feeling – what the hell was I thinking telling him to keep trying his best while he was willing to be empathetic and merciful? Shit! I lost a bit of sleep that night as I processed how to continue the conversation in the morning.
We often use the breakfast table as an opportunity to start the day with conversation and connection and this morning was no different – well perhaps a bit because of the urgency in which I wanted to redeem myself for the previous night’s message of ‘keep trying no matter what and no matter who’s impacted’ (Wait, is that what I said?).
I started by telling him I thought more of his behavior and his choice to not try as hard at pulling his opponents flags. I told him I thought his actions were kind and generous and he was being very thoughtful of the other team and how they might have been feeling. He then responded by saying he understood and he didn’t think he would ever do it again (Shit! Did I give him that message?). I asked him to tell me more. ‘If coach saw me not trying my best, he might pull me out of the game.’ Hmm. Now that’s interesting. ‘That could be true.’ I told him, ‘It could also be true that he would understand you and support your decision.’ He thought for a moment. ‘What if I didn’t have a chance to tell him? What if he didn’t hear me?’ – Real concerns. ‘We don’t have control over that. What we do have control over are our actions and how we respond to others.’ I went on to tell him I supported whether he tried his best or whether he decided to back off and be his best. I made sure he knew that I trusted his decision and would be there for him after he made it.
We were silent for a while as we continued to finish our breakfast. Right before he got up from the table to get ready for school he told me ‘Dad. Do you know when I won’t not try my best?’ ‘When?’ I asked. ‘When we play the Patriots because they have a really good team.’
I think he got it.
There is no one answer, no one way of doing things. Life is choice and balance. As my son grows older my dictation of what is and what isn’t has evaporated and our conversations continue to expand in complexity. As much as this excites me, I’m also aware of my fear – the fear of misguiding or misdirecting his choices. I rest in knowing my intentions are clean and my want for him is joy, peace and love. Because really, all I can do as a dad is to be my very best, right?