Heather Behrends could tell from an early age that her oldest son Jake wasn’t the most athletic child. He was a little slower than his friends and he wasn’t especially coordinated. Still, he played soccer, baseball and basketball, the latter of which he especially enjoyed. Two years ago, though, Jake, who was 10 at the time, started playing competitive basketball (he was at the age when everyone made the team) and while he practiced diligently, often shooting hoops in his driveway after school, his parents saw how hard it was for him to keep up. “It was painful to watch him struggle,” says Behrends, a fitness instructor and parent blogger who lives just outside of Denver. “I know he was trying so hard, but the kids were leaving him in the dust.”
As the year progressed, Behrends and her husband saw that their son wasn’t improving, so they sat him down in their living room to tell him that he might want to consider playing something else. “We said: ‘I don’t think this is a fit," she recalls. “The way the sport is going and how older kids are playing it, it’s beyond what you’re really able to do.”
Behrends and her husband told Jake the truth because they were worried kids would start making fun of him for not keeping up—a valid parental concern. But they also worried that they’d be quashing a passion of his and he would give up a sport he loved, completely. Which he did. Even though his parents told him he could keep playing on a recreational level, a couple of days after the talk, the season ended and Jake quit basketball altogether. So what’s the best way for a parent to navigate this tricky terrain?
Michele Kambolis, a Vancouver-based therapist, says that while it can be difficult to watch your kid struggling, it’s never a good idea to tell them outright that they stink at their sport or activity. Being that direct could hurt their confidence and potentially cause feelings of betrayal. “It could crush their self-esteem and worse yet destroy a healthy attachment to the parent,” she says. “That doesn’t mean parents should be untruthful, but there’s no good that can come from telling a child they’re bad at something.”
But that doesn’t mean you should never talk to your kid about their strengths and weaknesses—you just need to wait until your kid is ready for it. If they’re happy in their activity, then let them continue, says Stella Kavoukian, a Toronto-based therapist and social worker. When you see them struggling, sit them down and ask them how they’re feeling about the activity and whether they might want to try something else. “It goes back to satisfaction,” she explains. “If they’re not having a good time and it’s creating concerns or low self-esteem then have that conversation.”
It’s also important to use the right language. Kambolis suggests framing it as ‘strengths and struggles’. Talk to them about what they’re good at and then discuss the things they may be struggling with. It’s really about the words you use, says Kambolis. For instance, it’s better to say, “this may not be a strength right now,” instead of saying “this isn’t your strength.” The “now” is important, she says, as it signals to the child that either they may be able to improve at some point, or they can try again later.
If you’re worried you’re setting your kid up for a lifetime of embarrassment by not being brutally honest—don’t be. Most children tend to figure out they’re not good at something on their own, says Kambolis. Generally speaking, kids start assessing their abilities in a more serious way at about 16, but many figure things out earlier, says Kambolis. “It will absolutely show up itself,” says Kavoukian. “They’ll realize that they’re not going to make the NHL and that they’ll be cut from the team. Some will say I still enjoy it and others will quit, but it’s not up to us to say they’re not good enough to continue.”
As hard as it might be to watch your child miss their shots or sing off-key, letting them do something they’re not good at could actually benefit them in the future. Struggle builds resilience, which is a better life lesson than perfectionism, says Kavoukian. It also reinforces hard work. Not everyone is a natural talent at something—trying different things or working at mastering an activity is what life is really all about. “We can’t be great at all things,” she says. “Having the ability to recognize that fact, but not letting it deter us from persevering is important. Building emotional strength and tolerance at a younger age helps us better face and overcome the challenges we may encounter later in life.”
It was hard for Behrends to watch Jake give up basketball, but she’s still comfortable with their decision to give him their advice. She believes in being “real and honest” with her children, she says, but in a loving and supportive way. “We did not want to kibosh a passion for him, we just said we don’t think playing competitively is the path for you,” she explains. While Jake still shoots baskets at home, he’s now thrown himself into baseball, which he seems to enjoy. “He really likes it,” says Behrends. “It’s his sport.”