The other day, I was talking to a friend whose daughter plays high school lacrosse. During the conversation, my friend, a lifelong athlete herself, fessed up to something I’ve been feeling for years. I won’t go in to details, because “mom code” and all (i.e., we can criticize our kids to other parents, but if any one else does, it’s game over). But the gist of it was this, “Can’t we just tell our kids when they play horribly?” I’ve struggled with this one. Because, COME ON. But the answer is no. Absolutely, unequivocally, no. We are supposed to lie to our kids. That’s our job.
In the early days, I swore I would always be honest with my kids. When they asked me questions, I would give them straightforward answers. I would deliver harsh truths gently, but firmly. I wouldn’t make up weird euphemisms, but tell them the way of the world. I most definitely would not raise the next generation of coddled, me-generation, everyone-deserves-a-prize-just-for-showing-up kind of kids. Nope. My kids would be sure of their strengths, while knowing where they needed to work harder for improvement.
Then I had kids.
The lies start almost immediately. At first, it’s mostly just lying to ourselves. At birth, we rave about the beauty of it all, when we know full good and well the HORRORS that just went on to get them from in there to out here. We tell them how beautiful they are, when in reality they are red, wrinkly, bald, squinty and recently covered in…well, see reference to “HORRORS” above. And this is all before we leave the hospital.
Fast forward over the next few years, and we find ourselves praising these same children for basic body functions – both for having them and for not having them. We praise them for eating, for walking, for talking and for sleeping. We tell them how much we LOVE the picture they colored, when honestly, if their motor skills are refined enough to work an iPhone and carefully wedge goldfish crackers into even the smallest cracks of the car seats, then, surely, they should be able to color in the lines.
Then they start to play sports. “Great game!” we say, because it’s a bit snarky to say, “Your cartwheels are improving and it’s nice that you made sure there were no more flowers on the soccer field to distract the other players – you know, the ones who were actually playing?” Besides sarcasm is lost on a toddler and, therefore, much less satisfying.
As they progress through school, through sports, and through life in general, we continue with this kind of encouragement, and maybe we even convince ourselves that we believe it. But the truth is, sometimes our kids suck. Sometimes, you look on stage, and while all the other kids are dutifully singing “All You Need Is Love” with coordinated hand motions, your kid is staring at the floor with their finger up their nose. Sometimes you’re at a swim meet cheering on a kid who looks more like they’re in the midst of a shark attack than swimming the breaststroke. And sometimes, you know, that if you shout instructions loudly enough from the sidelines, despite the fact that the coach is standing right there, then surely your advice will be the thing that turns the game around.
But as parents, our only job is to cheer; to encourage; to always, always be our kids’ biggest fan. My mother-in-law said it best one night while watching my frustration with my daughter’s reading progress. Our attempts at the nightly 20 minutes of out-loud reading would usually end up with one of us in tears. I did not for the life of me understand how she wasn’t getting it, when clearly, I was being so logical in my explanations. After all, she should listen to me – I’m the one that could read. My mother-in-law simply watched and then said, “It’s not your job to teach her how to read. That’s what her teacher is there for. Your only job here is to be a cheerleader.”
It was perhaps the most liberating moment of my life. As soon as I took the pressure off of myself to make sure that my child was perfect, I took the pressure off of her, as well. And my mother-in-law was right. Our kids have coaches to teach them to be better athletes. They have teachers to teach them to read and write and do math. They have us to love them, to guide them and to teach them how to be better humans.
Coincidentally, as I started writing this article, I took my usual “I’ve written three sentences, so I should probably look at Facebook” break, and I stumbled across an article on this very topic. While the piece in question pertains particularly to baseball (a sport I know nothing about it), the message rang true across all aspects of a child’s life. Entitled Dad, It Doesn’t Help, the author, talks about how the best parent supporters are the ones who shout praise – never advice. He goes on to say that the players don’t need that added pressure. They get it already. They know the stakes, and they know that their coaches and teammates are there to guide them – all they want from their parents is support and love.
Our kids don’t need us to be honest with them about their failures any more than we need our husbands to be honest with us when we ask if “these jeans” make us look fat. What we really want to know when we ask a question like that is that we’re beautiful no matter what. What our kids want to know every single day of their lives is that we’re there, that we love them unconditionally and that we will support them through every success and failure.
When your husband says, “No, those jeans look great,” you might know he’s lying, but you still feel a little more confident, a little more beautiful, a little more loved. Because after all, you know you’re not perfect – but you also know that there is someone out there who thinks you’re pretty darn close – and that’s all any of us really need.
Kids will make mistakes. And they definitely won’t be the best at everything. But life will give them enough hard knocks – and they’ll figure it out. As parents, we need to discipline and guide them; provide boundaries and set high expectations; and make sure they don’t grow up thinking that they get a prize just for showing up. But that’s at home. When it comes to the face they show the world, as long as we let them know that that face is beautiful – then that’s the only truth they need to know.