At the age of thirteen, at a parents’ evening to look at potential subject choices (for O Levels in those days) I distinctly remember the German teacher telling my parents “Elizabeth just isn’t capable of doing German O-Level”.
Recalling Maya Angelou, it’s hard to remember the exact words, but I absolutely remember how they made me feel. I loved languages. They were the only subjects in which I felt like I genuinely excelled at the time. And so determination to prove her wrong kicked in and carried me through to go on and get a B and even to continue to German A-Level. I took Spanish too, and remember being ridiculed in class when I translated something as ‘balustrade’ only to be told that nobody uses that word anymore. Well, we did at home.
Throw away remarks – well-meaning or not – can deeply affect a young person and leave their imprint forever. It’s a good many decades since these events but I remember how I felt. They rocked the foundations of my fragile belief that I was good at something. And languages were at the forefront of all the careers which attracted me at the time… spy, air hostess, secretary at the UN, travel courier…
“We are all capable of doing anything which has been done before” (click to Tweet this)
So if an 11 year old tells me she wants to skate at the Olympics, it is not for me to judge whether or not she is capable. For we are all capable of doing anything which has been done before, if we learn and practice enough and precisely model the behaviours of those who have achieved that thing.
We don’t dismiss a 4 year-old’s wish to be a fireman or an astronaut or a princess (yes, they are all possible), so when an older child voices an intention to do something that we consider too difficult, why should we suddenly stop encouraging them? Because we don’t want their hopes dashed? Really? Aren’t we doing exactly that by not taking them seriously?
I ask that 11 year old where she sees herself in 10 years’ time. Skating at the Olympics. OK, so what do you need to do now, in order to make that happen? What do Olympians do which you will need to be able to master? What do you need to be doing in 5 years’ time from now? By next year? This month? This week?
These are not simple questions for an 11 year old. 10 years is almost their whole life all over again – it must seem as if they have forever to prepare for those Olympics – but importantly I have triggered a process of breaking the task down into bite sized chunks. Aside from being able to do the tricky elements and get great marks, and practicing harder than her competitors (her view of all that is needed) what else needs to happen? What else does she need to know or do?
Avoid putting your own limitations onto your child
When a young person announces their intention to be something which is beyond your comfort zone as a parent or as a coach who ‘knows’ the young person’s limitations – instead of helping them to see it’s not possible, take them seriously. Start with mapping out the possibilities. Get them researching what it really entails to reach that big dream. Who knows, a little more knowledge might make them decide it’s not for them after all.
Who are their champions? What qualities do they have and which of those qualities does the young person already have? What else might they need to work on? How could they do that? What might prevent them from doing it? What could they do to stop that thing from preventing them? What resources would they need? Who could help them? Don’t answer these for them – it is crucial they start the questioning process off inside themselves.
Encourage the young person to look at their dream from 360 degrees. Not merely as a linear progression of working hard, achieving this or that along the way and getting there if they are lucky. Because sure enough, in this way, once they hit an obstacle, they will have no way of knowing there’s a way round it.
You can use goals for tying shoelaces, learning to dress themselves – anything. And make sure their reward centre gets activated upon achievement of what they set out to do – each step of the way – so that they are actively seeing the progress they are making.
Feeling as if nothing is changing, nothing is moving forward can lead to demotivation, apathy, depression and a feeling of worthlessness. Seeing progress, however small, and being actively encouraged in our steps towards a bigger goal is good for our mental health and wellbeing.
Of course not everyone will get to the Olympics
It may be that on the journey there, the dream changes into something else as the young person becomes more aware of what other options are open to them. In this case, coaching, shows, other international competitions, judging, composing music, designing costumes, sports psychologist, physiotherapist… But coming to that decision by themselves is much more empowering than if doubt is cast on their ability by others and they are left feeling incapable. A young person that is encouraged (not pushed!) to find their own small steps towards their dream instead of being told, however kindly and well-meaning, that it isn’t possible, will thrive and be confident in themselves.
Above all else, never, ever tell them they aren’t capable of doing something. You will break the fragile glass of their dreams and the shards will remain in their heart forever.