How we’re unknowingly setting our kids up to fail at life
Confidence. Self-esteem. Talk to any parent and they’ll tell you they want these qualities for their child.
We want it, but how do we instill it into our kids? In my experience, confidence is achieved through repeated experiences of success. And, what is success? Success comes from the satisfaction and pride of completing a task, and/or reaching a goal.
If this is true, that experiencing “success” comes from reaching a goal or completing a task, then contrarily, the experience of failure comes from incompletion - not reaching a goal... From quitting before the task is finished.
That would mean when kids don’t complete projects or reach goals they experience a sense of failure. Instead of growing in confidence and self-esteem, kids who quit actually lose confidence and self-esteem.
I believe this is true. And parents with the best intentions, perpetuate it every time they let their child quit something prematurely - before it’s complete. This typically happens when their kids are in a valley (at a low point) - the worst time ever to quit.
Having worked with thousands of families in my career in teaching music & dance, I’ve had literally hundreds of conversations with parents who enrolled their kids because it seemed like a good idea and then let them quit to try something else.
They commonly said, “I want my child to try lots of things. Eventually they’ll find something they love and we’ll stick with that.”
That’s a well-intentioned but an inherently flawed premise.
I initially took a similar approach with my own kids but, with time experienced a negative outcome with one of my daughters who tried lots of things but never felt she was good at anything. She stopped wanting to try things. Her self-esteem and confidence suffered then, and does even now into her mid-20’s.
The slow death of self-esteem and self-worth is perpetuated by habitual quitting. When quitting becomes a habit, we end up with children who tell themselves they aren’t good at anything; that they can’t achieve anything, and eventually it’s not worth even trying.
If we think this is simply unfortunate or sad, we misunderstand and underestimate the impact quitting has on a child’s belief system.
We fail to understand that feelings of “not being good at anything” and “why bother trying” negatively impact a child’s life. The effect is felt in activities, school, friendships, relationships and in vocations.
I believe that the death of self-esteem and confidence can lead to isolation, depression and possibly even suicide.
Hope for the future - Setting our kids up for confidence and healthy self-esteem
There is a solution. In my experience, we can completely alter a child’s beliefs and trajectory for life. Here’s how:
Before you enroll your child in an activity, know why it’s important to you, what goals you have for your child in that activity and how long you want them to participate.
For example, you want your 5 year old to participate in gymnastics. Your goal is that they develop some body awareness and be able to do a forward roll. The coach tells you it usually takes 8 weeks to achieve that.
Commit to the goal. This is not a commitment your child makes. You make it. Tell your child the goal and let them know that no matter what happens, they’ll be enrolled for the 8 weeks.
It’s important to note that, while children are smart, they lack the skills and experience to commit to anything. They don't know what’s best for them, nor do they know how to finish what they start. They learn that from you.
Understand that every long-term commitment/relationship has a series of peaks, valleys and plateaus that last for short, medium and long terms AND are always changing.
It’s inevitable - it is human nature - for your child to be thrilled about gymnastics one day, and refuse to go the next. They can’t wait to get to class, then they can’t wait to get out of class.
Typically, this is where the trouble begins. A child decides they don’t like it, they’re tired or they’re bored. They get upset. They cry, whine and complain and the parent thinks, “Something’s wrong.”
The parents start to question the activity, the coach or teacher, the facility, or themselves. When they get uncomfortable enough, they let their child quit, with the promise that they can try something else.
Peaks, valleys and plateaus are normal in long-term commitments. They’re expected. They’re part of the commitment cycle. Nothing is wrong. It’s actually perfect and normal. Think back on any long-term relationship or commitment and you can see it for yourself.
When we let our kids quit in a valley, they don’t get results. They never learn the forward roll. They never master any skills. They don’t get to the final class - which in itself is an accomplishment.
The first time we let them quit it doesn’t seem like a big deal. We enroll them in another activity and a few weeks in don’t like it. The same negative behavior (crying, whining, complaining) ensues and parents are back to making the decision to let their child quit. It’s easier to let them quit than to put up with and deal with the upset.
The pattern is set. The child is calling the shots - yet they’re not mature enough to know what’s being set up.
The child begins to think, “I’m not good at gymnastics.” Or, “I’m not very good at soccer or piano.” “I don’t know how to do anything and I never will.” They stop trying. They may grudgingly go to an activity but, expect to fail.
This mindset - of not being good at anything, of jumping from one thing to another without experiencing success - follows a child through his or her life. It impacts relationships, jobs and experiences of every nature.
The death of self-esteem and confidence is real. Look around and you’ll see it everywhere.
Ask an isolated, depressed teenager what they’re good at. Ask them what they love to do. Ask them what they tried when they were young. In my experience, these are the kids who habitually quit activities when they were young and have low self-esteem and zero confidence as a result.
Now ask a teenager who's excelling at dance or music or sports. Ask them how they got to this point. Ask them how they do in school. Ask them how they feel about their future. This is the teen whose parents didn’t let them quit but understood what it would take to help them finish what they started.
I believe as a culture, through conversation and education, we can turn this around. We can raise a generation of kids who know how to finish what they start and grow in confidence with each successful achievement or completion, kids who are excited about knowing they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to.
We need to be brave enough to have conversations with parents so they know what their role is. Parents need to understand how long-term commitments work and how to steer their kids away from the habit of quitting. They need to understand that letting their kids start and stop numerous activities until they find the one they love is actually contributing to low self esteem and lack of confidence.
Raising successful kids requires parents who are confident in their parenting and know that they can make good decisions for their kids. It isn’t easy. It takes being present. It requires being selective and intentional about what we enroll our kids into and what we want them to learn.
Confidence and self-esteem are keystones to the well-being of our children. If we can support them in developing confidence and self-esteem through experiences of success, they will know how to be successful for the rest of their lives.
The reality is that this generation of children is the next generation of adults. They are the future stewards of our world and it is our privilege and our responsibility to equip them with the tools to lead themselves and others.