I just finished coaching my son's (K-2nd grade) basketball team. We had a successful season. We finished 2nd in the league standings after the regular season and played for the championship in a one game playoff. The team played admirably, but came up short in that final game. As I handed out the silver medals they had earned I told them all they could be very proud - the team we lost to that day was the only team to beat us during the season. As I explained to my players, the other team was just better than us.
Afterwards I reflected on how valuable that last piece of information was. Too many children grow up without ever hearing that someone is better than them. Parents, schools and society are so quick to offer faux praise today. But I don't like it. When did trying to encourage a child mean lying to them? Accentuate the positives - creatively if needed - but don't lie to them.
My wife follows the American Idol contest each year. I don't pay much attention to it, but I will sometimes find myself on the couch next to her while its on the TV. At the beginning of the season, thousands of potential 'Idols' will try out at staged auditions around the country. Most of the singers have watched the show before and believe they have what it takes to be the next American Idol. Most of them are 100% wrong. As Simon would put it, they're "dreadful". It's not just that they have no future in music, but some of them have no past association with it either. It would be simply impossible to consider that dreck music.
Yet each of them have someone standing outside the audition door. They have someone who let them go on national TV and embarrass themselves. They have someone who refused to tell them the truth. They're bad and no one ever told them about it. And often it's mom and dad who stands outside the door to console their child who seems perfectly nice, but has a singing voice that sounds like phantom chains being drug across the floor. What do mom and dad say? "I can't imagine why they didn't take you - you're the best." Guess what? Mom and dad just lied to their own son or daughter on national TV.
I know, I know...we don't want to shatter their dreams. Well, it's been shattered now and on national TV to boot. How much time and energy have these poor deceived children wasted on a dream that will never come true? Wouldn't they be better off finding a new dream? Here they are at 19 or 20 years old, they've spent countless hours and dollars working toward a goal they never had a chance to attain.
Dreams are like balloons. They can pop violently or simply develop a slow leak. We don't need to pop them. But we shouldn't be afraid to examine them. My little boy is tiny. As he gets older, I will be honest about the limitations size can have on his sports aspirations. I won't be destroying his dreams. I'll be giving him useful information. Smaller players need to bring different skill sets to a sport than the larger players. By being honest with him, he will be able to adjust and practice the skills needed to be successful. If the hurdles prove to insurmountable, it won't come as a shock to him either.
Watch your children closely. See where they excel and seek to complement them there. Children aren't oblivious to reality. They know when praise is being lavished inappropriately and this hurts their self-esteem. A child's self-esteem is properly built when they are given praise for an actual accomplishment. Build their self-esteem by helping them find what they are good at. When a child finds something they do well, they will show more interest in it. When they receive praise for their accomplishments, they will seek to improve at it and practice even more. Well placed praise will create excellence in your child.
On the other hand, when lavish praise is given to them, despite evidence to the contrary, you will create spoiled and whiny children who refuse to accept reality. Don't believe me? Watch the first few episodes of American Idol next year and look for the hundreds of off-key singers who will continue to insist that they are the real American Idol and the millionaire celebrity judges are just jealous. Think about how much you would hate to be that child's parent. Then look at your son's basketball team after they just lost the championship game. Do you make up some excuse for why they lost and tell them they should have won? Or do you do what I did - look them in the eye, tell them how proud you are of how hard they played, but unfortunately the other team was just better. There's no need to lie because in the end, second place is pretty good too.