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Is it OK to Tell Your Kids They Aren’t Good at Something?

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Sitting in church one Sunday, my friend and her family sat in the pew behind us. I listened as her eight-year-old son sang off-key at the top of his lungs. I turned around and smiled and she shushed him. I gave him a thumbs up and said, “Keep singing!” Later she told me he doesn’t care about being good. He just wants to participate. She asked me, “Is it OK to tell your child they aren’t good at something?”

Another friend raised a similar question. Her daughter plays softball but has never gotten a hit and her defense would make you think her glove has a hole in it. Should my friend tell her daughter she’s bad? What if these kids get hurt or made fun of? Should we protect them? How can we tell them something isn’t their strength without hurting their feelings? Our kids aren’t going to be good at everything they try, so here are 5 things to do when they stink.

1. Don’t tell them.

I’m not saying you lie and tell your son he’s the greatest basketball player at the YMCA if he doesn’t know the difference between dribbling and traveling, but the truth is he’ll learn naturally and that’s a better teacher. And he might improve over time, so as long as he wants to keep participating, show your support and cheer him on.

2. Realize the benefits they’re experiencing.

My friend’s son who is always eager to raise his hand, even when he has the wrong answer, is growing in confidence. Some kids are petrified to participate out of fear of failure. This kid is not afraid to fail and that’s a valuable tool. Is it OK to tell your child they aren’t good at something? Maybe, but why do it if it means you’re robbing him of something more important?

3. Ask if you’re judging unfairly.

You might be harder on your kids than is warranted. They might be improving, but you could be focusing on their weaknesses. Shift yourself and your child to a growth mindset. Instead of “her piano playing has improved, but she hasn’t mastered ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,'” tell yourself, “… but she hasn’t mastered ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ yet.”

4. Don’t overcorrect the “participation trophy” mentality.

Just like “everyone’s a winner” has its flaws, overcorrecting with harshness or a brutally honest approach will rob your child of his or her spirit. Instead, focus on the process and the fun. My sons and I watched The Mighty Ducks recently, and a wise former coach advised Emilio Estevez’s character not to “teach these kids how to win. Teach them how to play.”

5. Focus on other opportunities.

If your child is struggling to pass classes and you know his or her heart’s set on a college with a tough acceptance rate, you don’t need to say, “You’re not a good enough student to get into college.” Instead, explore different trades, learn the salaries of professions that don’t require a college degree, or start talking about the advantages of attending a community college.

Do you think it’s right to tell your child when he or she is bad at something?

ASK YOUR CHILD...

What’s something you think you’re really good at? Here’s what I think you do well.

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