Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A Note for Parents of Adolescents - The Importance of Sitting on the Park Bench

I've been busy reading a book this last few weeks by Toronto School Psychologist, Alex Russell, called Drop the Worry Ball.  Its been a great read and one that has got me thinking about the crucial role of parents in the development of lifelong passion for being an athlete.  Adolescence is a key period of growth for children.  Kids seeking increased autonomy over their life often leads to a showdown between parents and kids that youth always wins.  How can we best support adolescents in their need for ownership and autonomy and continued involvement in sport?  How can we best help our own adolescents and those that we work with as coaches grow in independent self motivated adults?

Alex Russell says that the most important job of a parent is to help your child become an adult, emotionally separate from parents, and who have their own relationship with the world.  What stands in opposition to this happening is a change in parenting culture in North America - the bubble wrapping and sterilizing of children that never lets kids fail.  Its becoming more common in our culture to just hand out participation awards for kids instead of letting kids develop the resiliency that comes from not winning.  Competition has become a bad word, everything needs to be cooperative to protect the fragile self concepts of young people.

According to Russell, and I agree, for much of childhood, kids live in an appease and please world.  Motivated primarily by doing what they need to to gain the positive favour of the adults in their lives.  At adolescence, just as during the 'terrible twos', children seek more autonomy and independence.  And its crucial that if we want kids to own what they do, we need to, particularly as parents, increasingly give adolescents the responsibility for everything outside of home, including sport.

As parents, we need to be willing to give up the roles of organizer, manager, director, and teacher; and we need to be willing to give these to our adolescent children.  Russell, talks about 'letting go' to describe the role of parents.  That's not to say that as parents we don't have an important role to fill.  Russell talks about this role as 'sitting on the bench'.  As parents we need to be able to sit on the bench and lets kids play, celebrate their successes, and empathize with their setbacks.  We need to avoid getting up off the bench and interfering with a child's world outside the home.  This was much more common a generation ago.

A couple of days ago I caught up with an enduring lifelong friend of mine. Lana, lives in London, England and she was visiting her parents in Calgary.  We got talking about this topic and she shared a story that exemplifies Alex Russell's 'sitting on the park bench' parenting.  When Lana was in Junior High School, her mom had to get to work by 8am, Lana, like most 14 year olds had trouble getting up in the morning and was consistently late for school.  Her mom would wake her up several times in the morning, and needed to get to work, so would leave Lana to her own decision making.  Lana was late alot.  Eventually, her school called home to say 'Lana is late all the time for school, what are you going to do about it?'  Lana's mom said 'nothing, what are you going to do about it?'  Nowadays, this would be considered extremely questionable parenting, but it is exactly the type of type of parenting that Alex Russell says in needed to help adolescents be responsible for their choices.

To build an adult, or create conditions where adolescents choose to be an athlete is about 'sitting on the park bench' as parents.  We need to ensure there is not catastrophic failure, but we need to let kids fail.  When adolescents fail, and parents respond with interested and empathetic responses  like 'that's too bad, can i make you some soup?' instead of 'I am going to talk to your teacher or coach about accommodating your special needs', adolescents develop some independence and start being receiving feedback from adults in their life, who are not their parents, about their conduct and choices.  Russell says this is crucial to helping kids engage in their world.  In Lana's example, it worked, eventually after enough detentions, she started getting herself up and to school on time, but not before it got worse.  A generation ago, parents didnt helicopter or hover, or snowplow a path to remove all hardship from their kids' lives. They let the important adults in their child's life give them feedback to help them get on track.  Adolescents need this.

When kids are little and they have a tumble at the playground and scratch their knee, parents instinctively say 'its just a little scratch, you'll be ok' - its the sort of message that says 'you can handle this, its not a big deal, you're going to be ok'  But during adolescents, alot of parent forget that that is the same message kids need - instead of bubble wrapping kids or plowing a path through obstacles or sanitizing every interaction - we need to take a chill pill, and sit on the park and watch our children succeed or fail, and cheer or say 'oh that's gotta be tough'.  But it doesn't stop there either.

If you're a coach of adolescent cross country skiers or any sport, Alex Russell, speaks to the importance of your role in giving kids the carrot and the stick (metaphorical of course).  Coaches need to be willing to say to kids 'if you want to get better, you need to show up', 'i expect you to be here', or 'i'd like to see you work harder'.  If we want to transition adolescents from the 'appease and please' world of childhood to the owning the work of being an athlete, we need to be able to not only give kids some positive strokes, but deliver the hard messages that kids need to hear from important adults in their lives.  This is not just the responsibility of parents - coaches - if we kids to own being an athlete, we have to see ourselves as important enough adults in their lives that we can deliver both the positive and negative message that will help them to becoming an adult who stays engaged in sport because its what they want, not because its what somebody else wants them to do.

Alex Russell also says that as parents we need to deliver the message to important adults of our adolescent children, 'I trust you that you will make the best decisions for my child; I give you authority to give my child the kind of feedback they need to get on them on track and to help them become an adult who owns their own passion'

Alex Russell has a number of youtube videos that are a great place to start.  This is an exceptional book, and as a parent and coach of adolescents it has gotten me thinking about my own practice as a coach and my important role as a dad.  Here is link to one of Alex's videos

Hey its Canada Day today - we are lucky to live in one of the best countries in the world.

Enjoy your day

Canmore, AB