I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them. –Kurt Vonnegut
My son spent a lot of time in speech therapy as a young child for Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS). You wouldn’t know it now, as he recently performed as Bottom and Pyramus in his school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, every voter, every taxpayer, every citizen should spend an hour sitting the waiting room of a pediatric rehab facility, the chairs filled with the children and caregivers waiting for Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, and Speech Language Pathologists.
It’s an education. You’ll hear the amazing strength of kids struggling to master something physical or verbal. You’ll see a whole other section of life and childhood you may never have known even existed.
Stay with me. We’re headed somewhere.
I’ve eavesdropped on LOTS of conversations (hazard of being a writer, it’s in the job description) in these waiting rooms and parent areas in gymnastics, swimming lessons, tae kwon do, soccer, etc. Once, between a neurodiverse student’s parent and the parent of a stellar, athletic kid all prepped to quarterback the homecoming football game to a win and then take Miss Popular to the dance after, I heard a startling question.
Sporty kid’s parent, having conversed while watching both his and the neurodiverse kid, and sees the difference between the performances of the two. To their eye, sporty child is doing a better job in the practice. To the parent of the neurodiverse child, they ask, “How long can your child keep doing this sport before they have to quit?”
I’m sure the other parent gave some amazing answer, but I went off on my own internal tangent. This was a huge assumption on the parent of a sporty, neurotypical kid—that “looking good, striving for perfection” was the point of being in the class, and that progressing on a different schedule or looking different or being the lesser-skilled team member meant they should leave and no longer participate.
IS that the point?
For competitive sports at a certain level, sure, somewhere out there is a LeBron James or a Troy Aikman. But we aren’t all out in the world, waiting for our Fitbit to tell us we qualified for the Boston Marathon. I’m not pulling my WaterRower down out of vertical so I can score myself a spot on the Olympic team.
Are we supposed to expect every kid to excel, and be the best? When did we lose the concept of learning and getting better? What are the expectations against the reality? To set such high bars and hit them all the time?
And if our kids aren’t out there being excellent but learning, improving and becoming all-around better at being themselves… shouldn’t THAT be the point?
Kurt Vonnegut, whom I quoted at the beginning, had it figured out. And so does Steve Magness in his book Do Hard Things.
Confidence doesn’t mean doing something for the sole purpose of being the best in the world at it. “Confidence simply means having security in knowing that you can accomplish whatever is within your capabilities. It’s not in being able to do the impossible.” Do Hard Things, p. 77.
Magness writes about developing true, inner confidence, even laying out steps and the research underlying them. I consider this book first a book for me, and second a book for me as a parent to share with my kid to help him develop true, quiet, inner confidence.
The concept I love the most from this part of Do Hard Things is that of Lower the Bar. Raise the Floor. “Instead of going all in for massive breakthroughs, set minimum expectations and shoot for improving your best average.”
At first reading, I nodded my head. Yep, sure, makes sense. But then I thought about putting that into real life practice. And that’s where the sporty kid’s parent gets it all wrong, in my opinion. For example, instead of my ’high bar’ goal of doing a 10k rowing, which honestly is a time commitment I can’t meet realistically most days, what if, instead, I raise the floor? Bump my minimum from a solid 5500 to 7000 meters, adding an extra 10 minutes instead of doubling my time. Still a big jump, but for me, manageable. The result is I feel good that I have a new normal, and I didn’t fail. It was attainable.
In tae kwon do, what if instead of being lured in by the shiny glint of trophies the size of a small child, we raise the floor on basic skills and focus on other aspects of a quality martial arts education? Are we there to learn how to beat people up (maybe, if you’re binging Cobra Kai yet again) but to me, the martial arts are bigger than that. They are far more Myagi-Do, looking at developing as a person, building character and confidence and inner and outer strength.
This also falls into Magness’ work on how, to build confidence, we keep doing things just at the outer edge of our capabilities and comfort. Keep edging, to build confidence.
As adults, many of us the product of self-esteem building gone wrong as kids, how do we learn this for ourselves? As parents, how do we shift the conversation and expectations about activities and sports? How do we raise the floor and leave the high bars alone? Are we on an arc of self-discovery, having, as Mr. Vonnegut wrote, wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person?