Imagine little Johnny, the new kid in town, who is playing in his first after-school Little League softball game. He’s playing center outfield, and the bases are loaded. The batter is up; he hits the ball strong and high and starts running. Johnny sees the ball heading his way, and he raises his arm to catch while running backward to try to meet the ball. It grazes his mitt but he just misses it; the batter has hit a “grand slam” home run.
Imagine “Coach A,” who runs across the field toward Johnny, shouting as he approaches, “I can’t believe you fumbled that! You’re a terrible ball player; I never should have let you play. Go sit on the bench!”
Now, imagine “Coach B,” who approaches Johnny saying, “We’ve got work to do. For now, do your best to get behind where the ball is coming so that you can run toward it, not back from it. Meet me on the field tomorrow at 3:00 and we’ll start. I’ve got to teach you some skills.”
Which coach is likely to develop a better player? Coach A has humiliated Johnny, who will probably find it difficult to continue on the team. Coach B has correctly identified the need for work and has offered to help. To most of us, it’s clear that Coach B will develop the better player; yet how often do we “Coach A” ourselves, or our children?
Many of the challenges we encounter as adults, and certainly those faced by our children and adolescents, require that we work to develop and improve our skills in various areas of life. When we run into obstacles, setbacks, or failures, those of us who see these as opportunities to learn (Coach B) tend to be able to grow from the experience or to support our youngsters to do so. Those of us who respond with harsh criticism of ourselves or our children, and with the conclusion that we (or they) are inadequate (Coach A), are likely to lose confidence and to avoid future challenges, or to induce our kids to do the same.
Note that this is not about offering empty praise for non-achievement. A mythical “Coach C,” who responded to Johnny’s fumble by simply telling him what a great ball player he was, might be momentarily soothing to Johnny but would do nothing to help him improve his game; moreover, Johnny would likely realize that this saccharine praise was false. Rather, it’s about focusing on developing one’s abilities rather than on punishing oneself or one’s children for encountering difficulty.
Dr. Stone, a clinical psychologist, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and Director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Program for Self-Injuring Adolescents at the Westchester Division of New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York. He resides in Pawling with his wife, Susan, and their family.