When I was in college in the early ’90s, I worked at a summer camp where well-meaning counselors saw it as our job to encourage campers to be brave and to try new things. We cheered. We encouraged. We cajoled. And if I’m being honest, sometimes we pressured—maybe even low-key bullied.
Whether it was trying to convince a kid to take a turn on the zipline, flip off the diving board, or sing in front of an audience, we were told it was our responsibility to push each camper to do and be their best.
Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a tendency toward playing it safe myself, but a part of me was uncomfortable with these high-pressure tactics, and I’ve wondered since what the difference is between actual bravery and just doing something to seem brave.
Is it really brave when you’re just giving in to peer pressure?
What is the difference between digging deep to find strength or courage and simply giving in to pressure? Does it matter if we are really challenging ourselves or if we are simply acting out of fear of being judged a coward?
While it’s true that getting outside one’s comfort zone is crucial for growth and self-confidence, there’s also something to be said for being confident and brave enough to say, “No. This isn’t for me. It isn’t something I want to do right now.”
We live in a world that celebrates risk-takers and boundary-pushers. We champion people who try new things, challenge themselves, and work hard to be the best at whatever they do. And so we should. No question the world needs those kind of people.
We should champion our kids no matter who they are
The challenge for parents is helping our kids know what kind of people they are and then celebrating and championing them no matter what. That’s easier for parents whose kids are go-getters. After all, we are a generation that has embraced the idea that our kids need a passion, and it’s our job help them find it. And once they have found that passion, it’s our job to fund and fuel it.
But what is our job if our child isn’t always a doer or isn’t necessarily a joiner, if she isn’t particularly adventurous or driven? What about the kid who is perfectly happy being average or isn’t all that keen on trying new things? In a world that emphasizes success, achievement, and guts, how do we encourage and accept kids who don’t?
Perhaps our first challenge is to figure out why. What makes a kid reluctant to try something new or be content with good enough? If the answer is fear, anxiety, or a lack of self-confidence that’s one thing. It means helping that child overcome her fear or build his confidence through challenging experiences, offering chances for success, or even therapy—whatever it takes.
What about kids who are simply wired to be low-key?
But for kids who are simply wired to be more low-key, a different approach is necessary, and it is counterintuitive to our cultural norms. Rather than encouraging low-key teens to do and be more, it’s a parent’s job to accept, encourage, and even celebrate these kids just as they are.
This means normalizing no—at least sometimes.
“No, I don’t want to take an AP class.”
“No, I don’t want to upgrade my workout routine.”
“No, I don’t want to try out for an elite sports team.”
“No, I don’t want to go to this event or that party.”
Let’s teach our kids that while it is brave and admirable to challenge themselves and try new things, it is also brave and admirable to know their own hearts, minds, and abilities and to say no to things that don’t interest them or that they aren’t ready for.
It’s tempting to see this as letting kids slide or as not encouraging them to reach their full potential. To be sure, it’s a balance. Complacent kids might need a bit of a push now and then to try new things or get out of their comfort zones. It’s important to help them discern when they are being selective about how they spend their time and when they are just being lazy or fearful. But to see kids who aren’t always striving or who don’t embrace change as “under-achievers” sells them short and ignores their unique gifts and abilities.
Not only that, this mentality sets an expectation for all kids that is similar to the one at my summer camp—”If you can, you should—even if you don’t want to.” This way of thinking can lead to stress, anxiety, and even poor decision making, and it prevents some kids from getting to know themselves and what they truly are passionate about.
It isn’t always easy to figure out when to push teenagers and when not to. The key is knowing your kids and establishing an open dialog about interests, emotions, and expectations (theirs and yours.) After all, we all want what’s best for our teens even if the best is “No thanks, that’s not for me.”
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