On my oldest child’s 16th birthday last fall, I engaged in a parental rite of passage: driving her to the Registry of Motor Vehicles for her learner’s permit. To get it, she’d need to pass a 25-question test about traffic rules — and she was a little nervous. So I tried to help.
“You’ll do great,” I said. “Remember, you only need to get 18 questions right, so even if you don’t know seven answers, you’ll still pass.” I paused, trying to think of what else to say. “Did you know that 85 percent of people pass the first time?” I said. (That was a lie: I have no idea what the real number is, but it sounded comforting.) Finally, I resorted to framing the problem as a worst-case scenario: “Even if you fail, we’ll come back next week and you can take it again.”
I fumble through talks like this frequently. With three children ages 10 to 16, my wife and I have calendars filled with dates for their sports tryouts, competitions, and important tests at school. (Families with musical or theatrical children experience audition stress even more frequently.) I can offer little help with the substance of these challenges: I recall only snippets of the subjects they’re studying, and their athletic skills are already eclipsing mine. In an attempt to be supportive, I’ve come to specialize in well-intentioned pep talks, usually on the car ride to an event, followed (when necessary) by even less effective efforts to console them after a loss or a poor performance. I lean heavily on cliches: By now I’ve referred so frequently to the apocryphal story of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school team that before I even complete the sentence, they roll their eyes.
There has to be a better way to help my kids do their best.
To try to find it, I consulted Amy Baltzell, who directs the sports psychology graduate program at Boston University. Baltzell has a fascinating story: A world-class rower, her own performance anxiety cost her a spot on the 1992 Olympic racing team. (She served as an alternate.) A few years later, while she was on an America’s Cup sailing team, a sports psychologist taught her techniques to quell her anger, and Baltzell went on to earn a doctorate in the subject and write three books. In addition to teaching at BU, she counsels elite athletes, often via Skype.
“I was a gifted athlete, but my mind got in the way,” Baltzell says. “Now my career is helping people who are gifted performers learn how to deal with fear and self-doubt.”
I recited to Baltzell what I’d told my daughter before the RMV exam. She describes my words as “defensive pessimism”: I’m focusing on bad outcomes and trying to reassure her that everything will be OK regardless. Also, everything I say references passing or failing. In all, it’s a “not beneficial” approach, she says dryly.
Here’s how Baltzell would have that talk: “First I’d ask, ‘How are you feeling right now?’ If she says she feels nervous, I’d normalize that. ‘Everybody feels that way before a driver’s test.’ ”
“Next I’d talk about how much she’d practiced and studied,” Baltzell says. “I’d say, ‘I know you really read that driving book — I know that’s going to help you do as well as you can.’ ” This focus on a child’s efforts (studying, practicing) instead of results (winning, succeeding) is based on the work of Carol Dweck, a star psychologist at Stanford University, whose research has found that praising kids’ efforts, not outcomes, is a key to helping them develop a “growth mind-set” in which they believe in their potential to improve and succeed.
The next step: In a non-threatening way, inquire about the specifics of the test. “I’d ask: ‘What kinds of questions are you most nervous about?’ ” If she’s shaky on penalties for specific traffic violations, for instance, ask what tricks she uses to remember them. Talking about specific tactics helps warm her brain up for the task ahead. “That’s priming her for success,” Baltzell says.
Finally, she says, tell her to keep the test in perspective: “ ‘At the end of the day, I love you so much whether you pass the test or don’t pass the test.’ ”
Baltzell says I’m not the only parent whose words of encouragement may unintentionally discourage. She winces at what she hears on the sidelines of typical youth sporting events. “It’s painful to watch the choices that coaches make, and it’s painful to listen to the parents talk,” she says, citing excessive focus on winning and competition — and too little on doing one’s best and finding joy in the game.
The good news is that children can often overcome the handicap of even the worst parental pep talk. At the RMV, my daughter passed the written test; soon she’ll take her on-the-road one. Until then, I’ll be riding shotgun, trying to do a better job of finding the right words to help her succeed.
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Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.