Like any loving mother, I’m incredibly proud of my children. I’m proud of their manners, their kind hearts, their willingness to share with other children and not act like jerks 99.7 percent of the time. I’m proud of their beauty—on the outside and the inside. I’m proud of their intelligent minds and sharp sense of humor.
I’m also proud of their talents. They both excel in different sports and have amazing (to me) artistic abilities. Natalie Ann is only in junior high, but she has a God-given talent for the piano. My mother, an incredibly talented pianist, showed Natalie a few chords when she was just a toddler in Pull-Ups, and she took to the keyboard like a duck to water. I never fail to think of my mother every time my girl sits on the piano bench. When she effortlessly plays some classical piece of music, tears of pride stream down my cheeks.
My sweet boy, too, is one of the brightest lights in my life. I love his sensitivity and empathy. I love how he worries about others and cares so deeply for his dogs. I love that he’s the kind kid, the accepting kid, the humble kid. I love the smile on his face when he catches a fish, aces a test, or storms down a basketball court without double dribbling. I love that he is mine.
At this writing, our Annabeth is still just a cantaloupe in my womb (and the source of horrible heartburn), but I know she’ll bring me to tears with her acts of kindness and talent as well. I can’t wait to see all her accomplishments.
Although my children easily shine in many areas, however, they struggle in others. Some things just don’t come naturally to them. And in those areas, while I don’t necessarily expect them to be the best, I do expect them to work and do their best.
I’m willing to help. I’ve cheered them on as they worked their butts off to achieve goals, both academically and athletically. I’ve hauled them all over God’s green country to practices and rehearsals. I’ve quizzed them on notes and held up flash cards. On the way to school in the morning, we’ve said prayers for nervousness to cease and for minds to be sharp and for answers to be remembered.
Usually, of course, they take it upon themselves to work hard and prepare for whatever comes their way. But I’ve also watched them slack off and become sluggish in practice and preparation, then wonder why they failed the test or missed the goal, or played the wrong note. And when that happens, I am not one of those parents who shower them with praise and treats. I just don’t believe that lackluster work or lack of effort should be rewarded.
Mama praised everything I did as a child even when I didn’t give 100 percent. After every mucked-up piano recital or lost basketball game or failed test, she droned on and on about how well I had performed. Despite what she said, I knew I hadn’t done well. I was completely capable of making a free throw or flawlessly playing a piano piece I’d learned or acing a biology exam—if I practiced or studied, that is. But when I hadn’t prepared, it was always evident. I often didn’t deserve her praise, and over time her always-adoring attitude skewed my thinking. I didn’t believe I had to work hard because everything I did, no matter how poorly, was good enough for Mommy.
During my school years, I often let coaches and teammates down because of my laziness. I was kicked off teams and out of academic clubs. Unfortunately that superior attitude of, “I’m amazing at everything” stuck with me throughout college. I learned really quickly, from professors with stern voices and cold eyes, that I was not the bee’s knees. Without effort and hard work, I was mediocre at best.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m so grateful I had a mother who never let me forget how loved and precious I was to her. But as I grew older, I realized she’d been too easy on me during my adolescence. I’m sure she felt sorry for me because Daddy had died in my presence when I was so young. But her coddling meant that other people in this world had to be responsible for letting me know that poor work would not be rewarded.
What I really needed to hear from my mom after any subpar performance was, “I know what you are capable of doing, and I didn’t see that today. You didn’t give it your best. If you practice really hard, I know you’ll do better next time. Hard work always pays off. You can do better.”
Maybe my feelings would have been hurt. Maybe I would’ve rolled my eyes and sighed. But maybe I also would have practiced my butt off and been an asset to my team at the next game. Maybe I even would’ve made it to Juilliard or the WNBA.
Even worse than the parent praising lack of effort is the parent who insists their child can do no wrong. My mother was that way to an extent. I was a little heathen at times and got in trouble at school for talking out of turn or being sarcastic. And when Mama was called to the school, she usually defended me, insisting that I didn’t mean any harm or that calling her hadn’t been necessary. (Except for the one time I got a paddling at school for writing a really rude note about a teacher I loathed, and she tore up my backside with a hairbrush when I got home too. I still flinch at the sight of a wooden brush.)
As parents, we want to believe the best concerning our children. But if you show me evidence that my darlings have misbehaved, they will be punished—not defended and coddled.
I know several parents who commend every move their children make, but one woman, in particular, makes me madder than a wet hen. I guess she means well, bless her heart, but sometimes I want to interrupt her over-the-top praise and say, “Have you seen the stuff your little Tiffany posts on Instagram? And I watched her beat up another kid at the park right before robbing an old lady at gunpoint. Tiffany can be lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. Please quit pretending she’s all rainbows and sprinkles and holier than thou.” Little Tiffany is a brat, plain and simple. And her mother’s refusal to see her true behavior and discipline her is a crying shame.
Sports parents are the worst about bragging on their kids. I had a conversation at a softball tournament with a woman who called her child a prodigy. Repeatedly. “Babette Ruth” is only eight, Danielle. Let’s not call in the college recruiters just yet. At least wait until she finishes eating her Ring Pop in the outfield before getting ESPN on the line.
And if the future softball World Series pitcher throws eight-een balls in a row, there’s always a plethora of excuses. Danielle paces around the bleachers telling all the parents, “She didn’t warm up. She was up late last night. She forgot to take her steroids this morning.” I’d love to hear Danielle say instead, “She’s only eight and still wets the bed. No one expects her to throw a seventy-three miles-per-hour screwball.”
It’s great that Danielle is proud of her daughter and thinks so highly of her. My children know how proud Jason and I are of them. And I don’t want my lack of praise to be confused with abuse.
I don’t tell my kids they suck. I always offer encouragement when they are down. When I know they’ve put in hard work and still haven’t succeeded, we talk about not giving up and about knowing their worth in Christ. I remind them that they are chosen according to the purpose of God—and that purpose may not always be an athletic scholarship or gold medal.
Thinking back to that elementary basketball game so many years ago, if Natalie Ann had been aggressive instead of chewing her cuticles and she’d still failed to stop the ball or make a layup, I would not have been disappointed. She’d have gotten her pat on the back and her cookie. And if Bennett had stuck his lip back in and just sung the darn song about sunglasses and summer vacation—even off key—I’d have kissed all over his fat little cheeks and told him he’d done great.
I’m not over here locking kids in closets because they missed a pop fly or struck out at the plate.
I’m not whipping them with piano wire and drumsticks. However, I don’t believe that loving children means you must constantly praise them. I’ll never let them believe that failing to give it all they’ve got is okay. They’ll never be told by me that they are entitled to anything.
It’s not about winning. It’s about giving it your all.
Excerpted with permission from Thomas Nelson from How May I Offend You Today by Susannah B. Lewis, available now.