I am Ironman
I was born in 1984. My wife and I are either part of Gen-Xers or we are Millennials depending on which list or source you look to for your information. We have seen all kinds of parenting fads come and go in our lives; everything from Free-Range Parenting to Helicopter Parenting. I am never one to give hard and fast rules for how someone else should parent their children. Every kid is different and I am firmly in the camp that accepts that both nature and nurture play roles in our development.
I have always been fascinated by how our words, at least as much as our actions, have long term effects on our children. Our words matter. I have spent a great deal of time over the past 2 weeks researching and studying academic articles dealing with the language we use with our children; specifically, positive affirmation and reinforcement. I could bog you down with details and statistics on these childhood studies and information (which I will happily do for anyone who is interested!), but to sum up, our words really matter and so does how we choose to give our praise.
Let me give an example that is really common. My guess is that most people are familiar with participation trophies. These are prizes handed out to participants in an event because they showed up and participated. I have two feeling about these awards. First, I do not remember receiving a participation trophy. I’m sure they existed when I was a kid, but I do not remember ever receiving one. If I did, it clearly did not make a big impact on me. Second, how can we possibly blame the children for receiving participation trophies? These kids are not out there buying their own trophies and handing them out to friends. This concept of blaming generations of kids for receiving awards that some view as “unearned” is silliness.
If our children participate in an event and try their best to succeed at whatever it is they are doing, should we not praise them and tell them we are proud? Whether or not that praise comes in the way of words, actions, or other forms is up to you. It’s difficult for me to understand the detractors who say we coddle our children with unwarranted praise and rewards. Our words can have a lasting impact beyond anything we could imagine for a child who is suffering from low self-esteem or repression.
According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24; a larger portion than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and lung disease combined. More than 85% of the young people who die by suicide reportedly show signs of or are treated for depression.
I want to make a distinct and clear point that suicide and depression have a wide and varied number of causes and no single solution. What we can do, starting at a young age, however, is to help our children learn to value their self-worth based on the examples we give them. Recent academic studies on children’s self-esteem show that children with low self-esteem are praised more for their accomplishments while children with high self-esteem are praised for their effort. Even if a child is praised for an accomplishment, he/she may be learning that only if they succeed are they valued. If Suzie runs the race and finishes last, do we praise her effort, or do we “motivate her” to do better by pointing out that so many people finished before her? This type of behavior is how children learn that accomplishments are all that matter. We can value accomplishment while not diminishing another’s effort. One does not take away from the other.
Here are two real life ways that praise for effort can make a huge difference for someone. I played a bunch of sports growing up through high school and into college. One thing that I never, ever, EVER would have done is the sport that my brother and sister both chose: Cross Country. Holy moly. Running is a punishment. I can throw a ball, make a tackle, hit a golf ball, lift weights, or anything else you’d like. But man, running is either for the crazy or the most dedicated of individuals.
I remember going to support for my sister at one of her cross country meets in late October of her sophomore year in high school. It was cold, rainy, and muddy. My sister’s team was good and she was one of the top 4-6 best runners. As she closed in on the finish, I stood a little behind the line waiting with some of the other spectators to hand out towels and water. I noticed about 100 yards from the end that my sister was really struggling to keep her footing and her strides were a little off. As she got closer I saw that her face was almost completely white. I knew what was going to happened about 3 seconds before it did. Krista crossed the line and almost immediately collapsed. I had moved up to the line to catch her just in time. A couple of the other parents came to give her water and get her a jacket while we got her a protein bar and talked with her.
Turns out she has been feeling a little ill that day, but didn’t want to miss the race. As we sat and talked some color returned to her face and she said, “What was my time?” I went to find out from the time keepers by the finish line and returned to tell my sister. She was so disappointed. She missed a personal best by 4 seconds. Shortly after the race her coach came up and gave her a hug followed by a pep talk about team and dedication and how much she appreciated her effort. Then followed that with a talk about self-care. It was the kind of talk that ends with, “You’re no good to us if you’re dead!” Krista really felt better about herself after that talk. I could see it on her mud splattered, half blue-half red face.
I love watching and learning about people who accomplish things that do not appeal to me. This past week I listened to a podcast all about the Ironman competition. If running is crazy, then the Ironman contest is for the clinically insane. It’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon (26.2 miles) done consecutively and limited to 17 hours for completion. There are two wonderful parts of this competition that I love. 1. If you complete the race in the allotted time, you are an Ironman (which I learned is an all gender inclusive term). No if ands or buts about it. You have completed a huge accomplishment of endurance and perhaps the ultimate test of will. 2. There are athletes who finish the competition, but do so outside the time limit. There is a tradition for those who have completed the race to gather at the finish line to cheer on the remaining participants who arrive outside the time limit. It is a highly emotional and inspiring scene. For those who have completed this journey regardless of time, they receive the honor and praise worthy of those who came before them for having given their all to complete something that is immensely grueling. In fact, they are often considered Ironmen by the other contestants, regardless of the official rules.
Maybe we can take a lesson from this group of individuals and learn to appreciate that the accomplishment in a child’s journey is worthy of praise regardless of the activity. It may not be the literal Ironman competition, but sometimes I think surviving childhood is just as difficult.