When Your Child Isn’t The Best

When Your Child Isn’t The Best June 21, 2012

What do you do when your child is not very good at something?  Do you let them continue?  Or do you steer them toward activities more suited for their gifts?

I started swimming when I was a wee one–swim lessons, private lessons.  I sunk like a rock doing backstroke.  My freestyle was okay.  Butterfly was out of the question.

My first summer competing on a summer league, I was always in the third and slowest heat.  I swam on the “C” relay, which meant I cheered on my teammates and hoped we all would make it to the other side of the pool without drowning.  I was, admittedly, a pathetic competitor.  I was not at risk for burnout, but instead, I’d say my parents were the ones at risk for utter embarrassment.

Instead of allowing their pride to get in the way, though, they encouraged me to continue swimming; to work hard and see the fruit of my efforts.  They shlepped me to practices early in the morning.  They sat through meets in the sweltering sun.  All to watch their daughter often come in last place.  I don’t know how they did it. My mom realized early on that swimming wasn’t going to be about getting first place, but, instead, about bettering my times and improving myself meet after meet.  She made a graph of my performances and we plotted my times to watch a steady progression as I improved.  God bless her.

When the time came to make a decision about swimming during the winter, I jumped at the chance.  I started having practices during the week and was accepted into the lowest “bronze” team for our local USS program.  Subsequently, my parents committed to more practices.  Meets were now on the weekend and meant they sacrificed even more personal time so I could swim amidst hundreds of other swimmers, often being toward the bottom of the barrel.

Looking back, I am amazed they allowed me to stick with it.  Would I have the fortitude to put so much effort into an activity in which my child did not excel?  Could I swallow my pride and silence the helicopter-mom tendencies and encourage them to endure?

The beauty of the story is that the pudgy 8yo swimmer who could barely make it across the pool steadily improved.  I made my first “B” time cut then an “A” here and there.  I moved to the “silver” group then “gold”.  By middle school, I was practicing 7 times/week with meets every weekend.  The work was paying off.  By high school I competed in the state meet and became team captain.  Meanwhile, my development in swimming procured my true God-given gifts in running.  Had I not labored all those years in the pool, I might never have discovered God’s true plan for me as an athlete on the track.

Pride is a delicate thing.  To re-direct a child because of a lack of ability is to rob them of the benefit of humility, goal-setting, and hard work.  They may not be a future Olympian or a virtuoso in the making, but as their parents, we need to be okay with that.


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  • Molly

    Well said Bethany, and a lovely tribute to your parents. Hope you all are doing well!

  • Kellie “Red”

    I LOVE this! I think it relates to my burnout post on a number levels. First, you could have easily been “burned out” by not winning ribbons and having your parents focus on results at a young age. Kids get burned out when they feel inferior at something. Instead, your parents focused on character, proper swimming technique and teaching you to work hard at something. They also didn’t sign you up for ONLY swimming lessons, but you were a runner too. Early specialization does not do most kids any favors. You were allowed to explore other outlets for your talents as well, and your work in the pool actually helped you to become an amazing runner!

    Late bloomers are all too common in sports, which is why it is SOOOOOO important to remember that children mature at widely different ages! This can mean simply growing and getting bigger, OR it can refer to coordination, endurance, etc. I wasn’t even 5 foot tall my freshman year of high school, but by my junior year I was 5 foot 9 inches. My father played division 1 basketball, but didn’t start on his high school varsity team until his senior year. My uncle, who grew to be 6′ 5”, didn’t start on his high school varsity baseball team until his senior year, and yet he was drafted by the Red Sox just a few years later. Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team. I could go on and on and on. Youth sports should be about teaching the game/sport, having fun, and building character so that when everything comes together later on, the kids who have a shot to play in college etc., will have all the building blocks in place. And those that do not will have learned to love being active and built their character along the way.

  • Mary

    “Youth sports should be about teaching the game/sport, having fun, and building character so that when everything comes together later on, the kids who have a shot to play in college etc., will have all the building blocks in place.”

    Do you know what’s so interesting about this statement? This philosophy describes some the BEST soccer clubs in Europe that consistently produce the best young players. Clearly were talking about kids that are VERY good athletes at a VERY young age, but even when they get into the biggest clubs, like Manchester United, or the most famous producer of youth players, Ajax in the Netherlands, the kids hardly ever play games! They learn skills, do drills, and the coaches are really careful about pushing them too hard. By the time the best players turn 16, 17, 18, they’re ready to play in matches, or even join the senior team, but it’s not because they scored 150 goals when they were 10. Not really you’re point, B, since you were talking about kids who don’t show talent at a young age, but it’s interesting that even clubs that have a huge financial interest in developing the next super star, they still recognize that how kids need to develop as athletes when they’re kids is remarkably different from how young adults and adults handle the same situation.

    On a more related note, I’m totally all for allowing kids to do something that they enjoy… it sounds like you pushed yourself because you enjoyed swimming, and you’re parents recognize it. I’m so grateful the sports I played when I was younger, because even if I gave them up when I was in HS and College, they’re the ones I’m able to go back to NOW, as an adult, and still really enjoy.

  • Adele

    This post and the previous one make me wonder what role parents’ preferences should have in kids’ activities. Presumably things worked out well for your family because your parents enjoyed (or at least did not mind) attending lots of practices and games. I have zero interest in athletics of any kind, and would have trouble making sacrifices to support even a very dedicated and successful child athlete. My sister swam competitively, and I still have bad memories of having to do my homework on pool bleachers, never having family dinner (thanks to 5:30-7:30 pm practices), and having both my sister and at least one parent away at meets on weekends. Would it be wrong for me to tell a child dying to swim that I just don’t want that for my family?

  • Katrina

    These are such great thoughts, Bethany! I’ll bet that you practiced hard, even when you weren’t the fastest in the team, right? Seeing your hard work probably made it all worthwhile for your parents. If my kids are committed tO an activity, I’m more than willing to take them – it’s when they goof off that I feel frustrated with them and like its not worth it.
    I begged my parents for years before finally getting to take piano lessons. When I finally started piano, I was very excited and committed to practicing. I know that many Parents feel strongly about an instrument and enroll their kids no matter what. How have others handled the instrument lesson question with kids who seem less willing? Has it been worth it? I have one reluctant child and one who is totally eager! I would live to enroll both in piano lessons…

  • JMB

    I mentioned this in the other post that I encourage my children to stick with a sport even if they stink at it. If they hate it and stink at it, that’s another story. But if they don’t mind going, I’d rather see them struggle at something than do nothing. Many things change during puberty and beyond. I’ve seen small boys turn into men over night, tall girls suddenly shrink as other girls catch up, and the “fastest” kid on the soccer team become one of the pack. It’s a long race and it’s better to pace yourself.

  • Jo

    Interesting perspective. Reading this brought back bad memories. It was forced swimming lessons (“forced” in the kindest and gentlest of ways) that drove me deep into my place of hiding, afraid of everything and everyone for so many years. What you describe may have worked out well for you, but that isn’t the path for everyone. It is a lifelong nightmare for some. As parents, our job is not to make such choices based on principle alone, but to also fully consider each individual child. Maybe we should listen better. Not every child is molded by God for sports or music.

  • I think is has more to do with whether the child likes it or not. If they like it and want to continue if they are not the best one, fine. But even if they do great but do not like it and don’t want to continue why force them?

  • Gabby

    I agree that if your child enjoys something, they should be encouraged to pursue it, whether they are good at it or not. There are a lot of skills that you must learn and you will not always be a natural. I am not particularly brilliant when it comes to math, but I knew it was important to learn, so I put in the extra effort so that I could compete with my peers. If I had focused solely on what I was good at, I never would have reached my academic or career goals.