What’s Screwing Up The Kids

Here’s a question, especially for you dads out there (but moms need to answer too):

Do your kids see you as their biggest fan or their biggest critic?

Be honest. Think before you answer.

My wife, like me, grew up in the 70’s when dads had much different roles in their kids’ lives than dads of today. She’s one of the strongest and fearless people I know. Much of that comes from her faith and trust in God. But I know that a big part of that also comes from a truth she often speaks about her late father:

I always knew that he was my biggest fan. He believed that I could do anything.”

How would I answer that question? Probably with a bit of shame. Looking back, I know there were times, even though my intentions may have been good, that I constantly harped on what and how my kids could have done something better without balancing it with encouragement for the things they did well. Especially when it comes to sports, it’s so easy to unintentionally nudge our kids into a position of playing or performing to please adults instead of simply playing for fun and developing their own love of the game or passion for their sport.

Sure, we tell our kids to just have fun and do their best. That’s the message we think we’re sending. But it’s not the message the kids are receiving when we sit through their games (or even practices), coach them from the stands, and start on them as soon as they get in the car about what they did wrong or what they need to “work on” next. It doesn’t take much of this for kids to reach the point where they struggle to play because of the distraction of playing to please their parents. And for bystanders, it’s not hard to spot which kids are miserable because of it.

People pleasing is poisonous. And it’s especially poisonous to young people’s athletic experience. It can’t be beneficial to their mental health.

I started coaching middle school basketball 10+ years ago. Kids were different then. They didn’t have smart phones within their reach 24/7 from the age of 8. They didn’t have constant access to what everybody else is thinking or doing, false impressions of how great everyone else’s life is, or most dangerous of all……….constant access to other people’s feelings or impressions about them. But those kids, born around 1996 or 1997 did come of age with smartphones. And so many of them have been poisoned by people pleasing culture. New pressures to reach perfection in performance or appearance can’t be ignored.

Going back to my original question, I’ll add two more:

How many kids are growing up today with the impression that the whole world is their critic?

What effect does that have on their mental health?

I’ve never felt that I was a good basketball coach. But in recent years my mission in coaching has centered around one theme that I think has multiplied in importance in recent years; helping kids to understand that it’s okay to make mistakes. No, it’s not okay not give maximum effort. No, it’s not okay to not listen and follow instructions or be a bad teammate. But kids simply can’t function in healthy ways if they living in fear of not meeting the expectations of parents, coaches, and peers. They can work their tails off and try to focus in ways that prevent mistakes. But they cannot be shooting for an unrealistic level of perfection that they’re never going to reach.

The kids who grew up in the times where we began mocking participation trophies are adults now. Are they softer than the generation before them? Yes, just as parents from my generation aren’t as tough as those from my parents’ generation. Life in general has gotten easier, so that’s to be expected. Are young adults today less equipped to overcome obstacles and cope with the stresses in life? Probably so. Why? Maybe because we parents gave them less responsibility, shielded them from difficult situations, intervened in every little problem at school, refereed their spats with friends, and at the same time sent them into athletic competitions with expectations of perfection, college scholarships, and complete warrior mentality. And we did all this while overlooking our own experiences that made us a little better prepared for adversity……fighting our own battles, fixing our own problems, and having the absolute luxury of having our parents simply dropping us off at the baseball field and leaving us to chart our own athletic path without being micromanaged. And oh yeah, there was no social media. We didn’t know what other people thought. And we didn’t care.

Gymnast Simone Biles was in that group of kids born in 1996. When she pulled out of the team Olympic competition for mental health reasons, it stirred a lot of comments. Some good and some bad. I hate to see Biles painted a villain. I don’t think she is. And I hate to see her painted as a hero for the way she pulled out of competition. I don’t think it’s heroic. But I do hope it brings to light some honest conversations about a question that always haunts me:

What all is going on in our current culture that is really screwing up our kids into adulthood?

Maybe this episode with Biles could be seen as a sign of the times. An eye opener to some of the things that really are screwing up our kids and affecting their mental health. Social media overload. Seeing the whole world as a critic. People pleasing. Unhealthy forms of pressure on kids. Stealing their freedom to fail, solve their own problems, and learn from mistakes and losses.

Yes, mental health struggles are real for kids and young adults. But I sure hope we are willing to do more to prevent them than we are to simply swing the door wide open for everyone to start walking away from difficult things and attribute it to mental health.

If we don’t change the things we’re getting wrong, just think about what the 14 year-old of today will be like in 10 years. It won’t be pretty.

It’s time to stop screwing up our kids. Yours. Mine. Everybody’s.

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