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Pushing Children Without Pushing Too Hard

We all want what’s best for our children. But our idea of what is best for them might not always jive with theirs.


Often parents will give a nudge towards the decision they think is correct, trying to find that delicate balance between encouraging and pushing too hard.


But what is pushing too hard? At its best, getting kids to do things that are challenging for them will teach them grit and flexibility while also widening their world view — whether it’s participating in sports, trying out for a play or engaging in a new social situation.


But at its worst, pushing children too far can cause them to retreat inward, become resentful or develop even greater anxiety about trying new things.


It can be difficult to determine how much parental pressure on children is healthy and when you should back off.

Why we push

“I think that pushing our kids is a matter of getting them out of their comfort zone, and then pushing the zone to be further and further out,” says Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the founding president of the Child Mind Institute. “We know that being able to tolerate discomfort is a wonderful life trait, and in addition to that, it makes them grittier and more resilient.”


What we push kids to do depends on our judgment of what’s in their best interest, Dr. Koplewicz notes. “That could include pushing them while they’re in school to study harder, to do better academically. And we push them to try new things that we think will enrich their lives and make them feel good.” We might also push children to do things in the hopes that it will give them a competitive advantage on future college applications and scholarships.


Dr. Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, adds that encouraging kids to power through a tough situation can bolster their confidence.


“I think it gives them a sense of confidence to know that if there is a challenging moment, as a parent you’re helping them to problem solve it through as opposed to completely removing it or taking the problem away,” Dr. Domingues explains. “A child really does feel accomplished and good about the fact that they were able to get through it.”


Know your child

The most important factor in knowing when and how much to push is thinking about your child’s personality. “The first step is knowing your kiddo,” says Dr. Domingues. Particularly when it comes to pushing them to do extracurricular activities, consider your child’s strengths and interests, and have them be part of the conversation about what might be fun to do outside of school.


Perhaps you think they play too many video games and want them to be more socially engaged or physically active. “But if they’re not into sports, then pushing them into team sports may not be the best thing,” advises Dr. Domingues. Other activities — like a coding club or cooking class — may be more appealing while still hitting some of the marks you are looking for in an activity.


If you are meeting resistance, then it might be time to examine your own motivations for pushing your kid in a certain direction, says Dr. Koplewicz. “Are we encouraging or pushing our kids because it’s in their best interest, or is it something we’re doing for ourselves?”


Often our own childhood experiences greatly impact how we parent. “I think most parents want their kids to avoid the mistakes they made,” Dr. Koplewicz reflects. So if a parent thinks they would have been more successful if only they’d done better in school or participated in a sports, chances are they will push their kids in that direction.


Alternately, if parents have great memories of something from their youth they may try to push their kids to do the same thing, whether it’s join the track team or write for the school newspaper. But as Dr. Domingues warns, “I always tell parents the things that motivate us might not necessarily motivate them.”


When Kids Push Back

When kids don’t respond to gentle pressure, it’s important to consider what might be standing in their way. Is there some reason why your child isn’t engaging academically or socially? Is something inhibiting your kid’s ability to adapt or try new things?


“Sometimes when pushing kids you bump into a real limitation. It can be an anxiety disorder, or a learning disability,” explains Dr. Koplewicz. “There’s a real barrier there. It’s not that they don’t want to do it. They would love to do it. It’s just too hard and unless you remove the barrier, encouraging and cheerleading won’t work.”


For example, if your child is perfectly happy on the basketball court or going to school dances but won’t participate in the classroom, Dr. Koplewicz says the issue probably isn’t social anxiety. Instead they may be having trouble reading or processing information, so it may be worth a closer look.


Sometimes our expectations can become outsized, too. Parents who are very motivated by the idea of getting their children into college might already be thinking of signing up for the right extracurriculars and getting the right GPA when their children are still several years away from filling out an application. Being pushed for a goal so far in the future, and hearing about it for so much of their lives, can make kids feel inadequate and resentful. If you think that your child might be feeling too pressured, it is important to take a step back.


Children who are feeling overwhelmed or burned out might benefit from an approach that focuses more on the present. Praise successes and new skills for their own sake.


If your daughter is playing soccer and taking piano, perhaps it will help her later in life, but she shouldn’t think that is the only motivation. If your son is struggling in math and needs a tutor, get one by all means, but explain that your goal is to help him understand what he is being taught - not to get him into Harvard.

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