Dear Jane: My teenaged son started playing lacrosse last year but quit mid-season. This year he took up diving but wants to quit that too. I’m afraid he’s going to fail in life if he doesn’t follow through on his commitments. My wife says my son’s self-esteem is suffering because I’m too hard on him. I think we have to ride him harder and tell him he has to stay with diving until the end of the school year. All I know is that I’m at the end of my rope, we’re all arguing, and nothing’s getting better.
Jane Straus: As hard as it is for us parents to watch sometimes, it is the job of teenagers to find out who they are in the world, where they fit in, and where their talents lie. This requires trying on lots of roles. What kids find, if they’re courageous enough to test enough waters, is that not every role fits them. But this process teaches them discernment and, painful as it may be for them to fail or for us to see them quit, saying yes and then no to new things is a rite of passage into adulthood.
In addition, children often act as mirrors for our own fears, self-judgments, and limiting beliefs. If we can embrace this concept, we can learn so much about ourselves through them. So rather than focus on fixing your son, which is obviously not working, how about if we focus on what his behavior stirs in you.
What are your self-judgments about failure or quitting in your own life? Do you have any regrets from your past around quitting something too soon before you gave it enough of a chance? What are your own fears about failure? Be truthful with your answers and then forgive yourself for your past mistakes. This will help you see more clearly what your son needs from you and stop the vicious cycle you’re in with both your son and your wife.
Perhaps he could use your help with criteria for deciding when to persevere and when to let go. Your own experience, even if embarrassing, could prove enlightening for him. And if he does suffer from low self-esteem, maybe sports are not the answer to build him up. Perhaps you could help him find another activity that boosts his morale and his belief in his competence, individuality, and ability to succeed.
If you are looking for a way to approach him differently so that you get different results, remember to ask open-ended questions such as, “How do you feel about having quit lacrosse? What about diving don’t you like? What about it do you like? What other activity would you want to pursue if you did quit diving?” Make sure you don’t argue with his answers or try to use this as a lecture opportunity. Just listen. It’s the one thing that teenagers say they need most from parents and yet receive the least. Teenagers, like the rest of us, feel loved by being heard without being judged. I bet that you will learn something you didn’t know about your son and will feel closer.
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