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The Confidence to Try

August 15, 2012

Dear Mr. Pearl, I read your book Training Children to Be Strong in Spirit and it made me wonder what is wrong with my children. Your kids seemed so excited about life. My children hang around the house and fuss about this or that. They do not want to go out on adventures. I hate to admit it but compared to your children, they seem insecure and afraid to try anything new. How can I get them enthusiastic about life? - A Reader

Michael Answers

One of the greatest disservices we can ever do to our children is to blunt their need to try. No parent would ever intentionally discourage a child from trying to perform better, but parents are just old kids who may not have learned much since the second grade. Lack of discernment is a natural state common to all. It takes years of redoing our failures to get smart about human nature—especially the delicate nature of children.

I remember my father with utmost fondness and pleasure. He was very wise and discerning, but I remember one of his goof-ups quite well. I must have been about fourteen years old when I decided to write a poem about a weeping willow tree. I sensed great romance in the name and appearance of the tree. I worked on my poem for a couple days, and when he asked what I was doing, I read part of it to him. He walked off, and in about an hour he returned and read to me the world’s most brilliant and moving poem about a weeping willow tree. I felt strangely discouraged. I laid down my pen and was careful not to share my poems with him until I had finished them. Now I know why the willow tree wept: its father had blunted its need to try. I tried to learn to play the violin in my old age. I enjoyed it and thought I was making great progress. My wife seemed well pleased. Then one day a young girl, about seventeen, was at the house and I played for her. Afterward she took my violin and produced music like I knew I never would. The violin didn’t hold the same pleasure after that. My need to try was blunted by her excellent performance.

Don’t send me your psychoanalyses. I am 66 and as stiff in my psyche as I am in my back. I didn’t have to tell you these things about myself. I could have pretended to be above it all, but I want you to consider: if a fourteen-year-old boy who could whip a man in a wrestling match could be discouraged from writing poetry and a sixty-year-old man could be discouraged from learning a musical instrument, then what must it be like for our developing children?

Emotionally healthy children are filled with desire to do what adults do—to develop skills and become independent, contributing members of society. Their enthusiasm and inquisitiveness is unbounded. It is our responsibility to provide the context and the encouragement for them to succeed in fulfilling their dreams. They are encouraged to try when we praise their efforts. But as they get past six or seven years old they begin to see through our empty “Good job, Gabriel!” and expect to be praised only when they have, in fact, done a good job. Studies have shown that children raised on empty “positive affirmation” are actually discouraged from trying harder because they fear that failure will result in loss of the regular unfounded praise. If they are praised for doing nothing, why take the risk of doing something at which they might fail? If we provide opportunities and encouragement to launch out on the sea of investigation, they will know they deserve the praise, and it will encourage more risk taking, not less.

We parents are not all wise and are not always attentive to the emotional needs of our children. We are not going to always do and say the right thing at just the right moment, but there is one thing we can get right every time without fail: we can delight to see our children enjoying the process of discovery. When they try and fail, we can tell them of our failures the first time around and assure them that if they keep trying, all things are possible. Praise their past effort and be enthusiastic about their continued effort, but always link your praise to genuine effort and accomplishment.

I remember going to work with my daddy when I was only about ten years old, and upon meeting me, several people said something like, “So you’re the kid Ed is always bragging about?”

“I hear you’re a great artist.”

“I hear you can throw a knife like Tarzan.”

“I hear you’re quite a builder.”

“I hear you’re a Bible student.”

I remember being surprised the first time I met his friends at work and heard how he bragged on me. But it made me try harder to succeed in everything I did. I bragged on my kids to others. I think my children always knew I thought they were the best. But it was not just empty words designed to manipulate their frame of reference. I actually stayed involved in their lives, teaching them to succeed at many things. They were willing to try new things, succeed or fail, because they felt good about their abilities to face difficulties and overcome.

The worst thing we can do is find fault or criticize when they think they did a good job. If the five-year-old washes the dishes and proudly presents you with the results, and you see he has made a mess of it, don’t dare let him see you redoing his failure. The public schools of America are turning out children who are afraid to try. They expect someone else to take care of them and they retreat to social media and video games to live in a world of make-believe where they cannot experience the pain of failure.

Thank God there are millions of homeschooled children in America who are growing up with confidence to climb the steepest grade and stand on the top, alone if necessary. In regard to the letter, children will enjoy what you enjoy. You cannot SEND them out on a mission of discovery; you must TAKE them along on your safari. They delight in what delights you. They learn by emulation.

If you don’t want the cat trying to get in the house, always feed him outdoors and never pet him indoors. If you want your children to enjoy the great outdoors, then get rid of the indoor entertainment and organize outdoor activities that are creative and fun. Press the limit of their comfort zone and they will toughen up to the point of having boldness in the face of challenges.

I have observed my grandkids performing all kinds of antics until I stop watching and wander off. Then they follow me to see what I am going to do. Swinging on a rope with one hand is only fun if it produces lots of laughs and praise. Kids thrive on positive attention, and when they become accustomed to pleasing you with their antics, they will also want to please you in every other way. When they capture your face and eyes, you capture their hearts and wills.

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