I’ve always loved the Olympics. Aside from the sporting spectacle and the human stories behind them, the Games provide us – children and parents alike – with many lessons that can be applied to real life.
I came across this quote over the weekend attributed to Mel Marshall, the coach of British swimmer Adam Peaty, now a three-time Olympic gold medalist.
Chris Spice, British Swimming’s performance director, calls this “high challenge, high support”.
Some commenters on social media have interpreted this as a ‘tough love’ approach in its most negative form. They perceive this as a toxic environment in which coaches use bullying tactics and fear to coax maximum performance from their athletes.
I read this very differently, in a way that underlines how I want my kids to approach life. Don’t ignore life’s problems or wait for someone to solve them for you. Acknowledge them, confront them and – leaning on parental support only when necessary – work out how you can solve them yourself.
Preparing our children
To me, “preparing the road for the athlete” is to solve life’s obstacles simply by removing or denying them. This is the child who never learns to cook or do their laundry because it’s all done for them. It’s the parent who jumps immediately in to solve a problem for a child, because it’s quicker. Of course, it’s easier in the short-term, but is it good preparation for later life?
It’s also that endless parade of reality show contestants we like to giggle at. You know, the ones who dissolve at the first sign of negative feedback and blame the judges for not seeing their obvious star potential. They always have over-protective parents who worship the ground they walk on and only reinforce their child’s lack of self-awareness. Of course, as parents we all want to be supportive and for our children to succeed in their dreams. But we should also want them to handle setbacks and bounce back from them with redoubled determination. That’s just how life works, isn’t it?
Conversely, “preparing the athlete for the road” is more than just leaving a child to sink or swim. It’s about letting out the leash gradually. Find learning and coaching opportunities that enable a child to grow through a combination of experience, success and occasional failure.
It’s about resisting the temptation to immediately show a child the solution to a problem. Instead, step back and encourage them – with a little support when needed – to find the solution for themselves. Teach them self-reliance and resilience. Let them take pride in their achievements and give them the opportunity to learn from their less successful efforts.
And when we do this, it’s surprising how often a child devises an even better solution than their parents.
Our kids > Me
I will be the first person to admit that we – and me in particular – haven’t always got this right. But when we do, it’s immensely satisfying.
Isaac has grown into a young man capable of organising his own life and making good decisions. He has always been mature and readily accepted more responsibility. From the outset of secondary school, he has always travelled to and from Reading by train. He rarely needs reminding about things because he organises himself and often, it seems, his friends. He’s a natural leader and rallying point, and the more responsibility he takes on, the more he grows. (Whereas I used to leave everyone else to do everything whenever possible.)
Toby is on a slightly different path. He isn’t yet as mature or confident as Isaac is. So he needs more support in some areas – but less in others. At 11, he’s the child we can instruct to bake a cake and leave to his own devices. He’ll manage the ingredients, the oven and all the other kitchen equipment. (But not, sadly, the tidying up.) He will be the one who, if he goes to university, will do all the cooking for his friends. He’s the boy who already knows what he wants to be in life: an architect. (I’m nearly 51 and I’m still trying to work out what I want to be when I grow up.)
Kara shares many of Isaac’s characteristics. She is focussed, self-driven and utterly fearless, whether it’s sporting or academic pursuits. As a sporty girl, she has had to juggle plenty of both achievements and failures, which has built her resilience. She will always be our youngest child, but she will also launch herself at problems head-on in a way that belies her youth. (Whereas I never learned to cope with failure until I went to university, failed, and then crashed and burned spectacularly.)
When I compare them to a younger me, I see a set of kids who don’t expect every problem to be solved for them. In their own way, each is capable of finding their own solutions with minimal help. Of course, I didn’t have access to YouTube and Google when I was their age, but even so.
For all my failings as a parent, I think this is one thing we’ve got right. Our kids know we will always be there for them. But they don’t rely on us to remove every obstacle in their path. I left home for university at 19 as an academic kid with no idea how to solve real-world problems. I lacked confidence socially and could barely boil a kettle. And, worst of all, I lacked the maturity to deal with setbacks.
I’d grown up in a home where I was mollycoddled – with the best of intentions – by loving parents. Where I settled into a comfort zone where everything came easily, and I didn’t develop any resilience. And where it was too easy to blame my shortcomings on others: my university tutors, my parents, anyone but me.
It took me until my early 40s to accept this fundamental truth. Our kids are already far more self-aware than I was, and more responsible. Whichever road they choose to go down, they’ll be equipped to cope.
Of course, we’ll be there to support them if they need us. But somehow I don’t think they will. They’ve been prepared for the road ahead.