My Kid Isn't Good at Sports, Do I Tell Him the Truth?
Parents can support healthy self-esteem in children without falsely inflating self-confidence. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says you can focus on your child's love of the sport and allow other sources to give him the honest feedback.
The very short answer is, "Don't!" Not because I suggest you falsely cheer him on, or protect his self-esteem, but because he will learn best if his environment gives him feedback naturally. As his mother, you can stay in the role of his biggest (but honest) fan, and let the world do the dream-crushing.
I think it's normal for each of us to have our own parental blind spots; who else will think our children are as extraordinary as we do? In fact, research supports the importance of parents nurturing healthy levels of self-esteem with specific, truth-based praise and attention to their strengths. When it comes to specific skills, we can be like talent managers—spotting and encouraging our children's strengths, while being real about their weaknesses.
Truth in Parenting
I respect your realistic appraisal of your son's skills, rather than a rose-colored belief that "he can do anything he sets his mind to!" As I watch my first-grader's soccer team member get his hand tied up in the goal net, repeatedly, I wonder, "what do his parents say to him after the game?" Of course, a 7-year-old's ego strength is different from a 17-year-old's, but you do bring up a good question for all of us when it comes to our child's specific array of skills, "when and how do we tell our kids the truth?"
We learned from the self-esteem movement in the 80s that giving all the kids trophies may have done more harm than good, some experts suggesting it led to a generation of narcissists. A "follow your dreams no matter what" approach and vague, constant praise can instill a false sense of confidence that potentially sets up children for a lifetime of over-confidence that becomes problematic in the real world of the workplace and relationships. So, I encourage you to strike out the guilt about "being a bad mom" to have a realistic view of your son's abilities.
The growth mindset research on motivation and performance has convinced me of the importance of focusing on process over outcome, attending to what our children enjoy rather than what earns them accolades. In your situation, your son loves soccer, so you can support his love of the game without necessarily sharing your honest skills assessment, especially if he's not asking! If he is not seeking your input, I do not see the value of volunteering your opinion.
If You Must . . .
If you can't help yourself from getting just a little involved, you could check in with your son's soccer coach. You do not even need to share your own observations of his lack of skill, but ask, "what do you think of his plan to choose a college for their soccer teams? Do you think he's at a high enough level to play in college?" The best-case scenario is you get the surprise of your life when the coach disagrees with your judgment and informs you that your son is indeed a superior player. Because our parent instincts are usually sharper than that, the more realistic scenario is the coach agrees this would be a tough reach. In that case, you can nudge your son and coach in the direction of an honest discussion with each other.
Even if he might be good enough for a less competitive college team, you may not want him placing all of his hopes and dreams on soccer without considering all the other reasons to choose a college. This is worth an honest and open discussion. Depending on how open you think your son will be to this discussion, you could even partner with the coach to discuss the different ways playing college soccer fits into college selection.
You reference encouraging your son to branch out, which is where you can leverage some positive influence without having to focus on soccer deficits. When discussing college options, you can broaden his focus by asking questions that remind him of the expansiveness of college opportunities beyond the soccer team. If he has a career goal, it might help him to get excited about programs that have proven pipelines to this career (hopefully it's not to be a professional soccer player). If he loves travel, talk up the junior year abroad possibilities. How you discuss college with him might remind him of the many considerations when making this momentous decision.
As your teenage son is maturing and growing away from you and your influence, this is the perfect example when other sources can influence him while you stay on the sidelines of the metaphorical soccer field of growing up. This way, you don't put yourself in a position of hurting his feelings, and you can be there to give him support when he inevitably confronts the difference between his hope and his reality. What is real life, if not a series of these realizations? The more practice he has with managing hard truths, the more resilient he can become over time.
The Bottom Line
Your question opens the floodgates to an important lesson in parenting: how to be our children's biggest believers and cheerleaders, balanced with not falsely inflating self-esteem. Your honest appraisal of your son's skills will actually serve him well, and you don't even have to break it to him yourself. Focus on his love of the sport, encourage pursuing a wide range of interests, and support him through eventual disappointment rather than trying to prevent it by telling him yourself.
Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.
Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
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My son was just okay at soccer in high school but played on rec leagues in college and beyond. He has enjoyed it and made a lot of friends this way. The competition isn’t as fierce once they are out of high school ( on rec leagues) . My son has been the star of some of his rec league teams. So I say encourage him so he stays with it-he can enjoy soccer for a lifetime.Read More
Depends is the child going to make a career in sports?? Winning and loosing is not all there is to sports and no I'm not being (PC) other aspects involved such as team activities, relationship building in trust and also experiencing this idea that sometimes are great and some not so just as in life...also what ever happened to laughing at the game and just the experience of support for the child?? Sounds like parents are forgotten that just because it's not everything you expecting who cares it's showing up and playing trying your best and have some fun it's a game.... would parents be asking such a question if they had to admit to the same stuff to there kids how parenting has no guidelines that really can be perfect 100 percent correct and wonderful..so why the fussing over if he or she can't throw ,kick ,slide ,hit , sounds like parents are forgetting that are the kids desiring to play or is it only about winning and loosing??? Then yeah tell your kids that they are horrible...then tell them how horrible you have been as a parent...you know letting them down , fibbing over Santa Claus, you know the real important stuff in america , without any concerns what's the point of letting kids be kids ..if parents are so concerned over the greatness of the play of games...I guess fun was never a option.i am happy my parents allowed us to play and just be kids ...no one cared about winning and loosing..we lost some times but we always were winners after the game was over.. because my mom and dad were cheering us and smiling and we were happy kids for just being allowed to play with others...Read More