Odds are good that whatever your kid is into, there will come a time when they want something. Badly. Whether it’s a part in a play, a choir solo, a spelling bee win, the spot on the top team (or second or third team), a better grade, learning to ride a bike. Whatever it is, there will be something. When they speak of this thing you’ll see anticipation and excitement all over their face but maybe you’ll also notice a twinge of frantic energy, an underlying current of panic and desperation. You’ll see how the panic and desperation can start to take over the excitement and suddenly, you’re left with someone who quickly starts to spiral, fear and doubt washing over the very thing they wanted so badly and are now totally convinced is out of their reach.
I have definitely had those moments and have played it several ways with varying results. I’ve been the constant nagging presence, following them around, asking incredulously, “WHAT?! You’re eating that? You have a tournament tomorrow!” and things along those lines. I’ve also sat back, biting my tongue, forcing myself not to point out what seems obvious and watched my kids crash and burn. There is a time and place for both tactics but it didn’t take me very long to realize that I don’t want to be anyone’s overlord, watching over their every move, swatting cookies out of their hands, dragging them to bed on time, etc. And it also felt very removed and cold to watch someone so young set themselves up for failure and suffer a result that was avoidable. A few years ago my oldest son really wanted a spot on a new soccer team. It was a goal that was attainable but would require him to put in some extra work. When he told us what he wanted we asked him, “Is this what you really want?” his answer was a strong, certain “Yes.” So we asked him what his plan was in order to improve enough that he would have a good shot. He laid out a pretty detailed set of things he could do to work on speed, agility, foot skills, etc. We told him it sounded good but also seemed like a lot of work. I imagined me, following him around with the chart he’d made on graph paper demanding, “You’re going out to play? You didn’t do your 50 pushups! And why are your vitamins still sitting on the counter?” That scenario did not sound appealing. So instead, I decided to approach it differently; I told him that if he was serious about this he would probably do much better with some help and support. That eating super clean and going to bed on time would likely help and he agreed. I offered up that if he wanted, I would help nudge him until tryouts were over. I would be there to encourage him when he was feeling down, remind him of his dream and his plans when he was tempted by something that could easily derail him but I would never nag him or force him - my level of enthusiasm would match his. No more, no less. We agreed to try it and got started. Over the coming weeks I became a version of Paulie from the Rocky movies, helping him find pockets of time to train, offering up a smoothie or cup of broth and reminding him that the things he was giving up temporarily (sleepovers, bags of candy, a weekend to sleep in) would all be waiting for him at the end. Sometimes I just played the role of the not-fun mom who said “no” to things on his behalf to let him off the hook with friends and that was ok, too. His work paid off and a new dynamic between us was born.
These days, when a big thing is coming up with either of my two older boys we know the drill - as the thing gets closer I will say, “OK…you ready to be nudged?” and the answer is usually yes but sometimes it’s a “no,” either because they feel they’ve got it on their own or they have a better date in mind to start focusing on it or maybe it’s something that, upon some thought, isn’t really that important and they don’t want to be invested in the outcome, let along bring others along. Maybe it sounds crazy and restrictive to deny children some things that just seem like a birthright of childhood like candy, late nights and a whole day spent in front of a device but there’s a lot to be said for getting older kids in the mindset that goals take work and that if it’s something they want badly enough, the satisfaction of accomplishing it will bolster them for future challenges. Even if the end result falls short and they don’t “win” they have helped strengthen their determination and shown they can do hard things without having an adult drag them along. The win is theirs and that’s what matters. Or maybe they fail spectacularly and that is theirs, too. In that case, the Nudger can have a compassionate conversation about what went wrong, what they’d like to do differently next time or find out if it was something they actually really wanted in the first place. The Nudger will never declare loudly, “I told you so!” They’ll save that to yell into a pillow later. Because sometimes the thing that made them quit or not see the goal through is not laziness or indifference it’s fear or a crushing insecurity and we can certainly all relate to that. In those moments I remind my kids that those things are so real and will show up at the least opportune moments throughout their whole lives. But the silver lining - and it’s a huge one - is that they are sorting it out now, at such a young age that being able to identify those things will come easier as adults and they’ll have a whole bag of tricks to work past those hurdles later on.