How to Nurture Talent (Without Being a Psycho Parent)

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Here is a post I recently wrote for Jenny Rosenstrach’s wonderful Dinner: A Love Story blog (which, if you haven’t checked it out, you should, right now, especially if you’re a parent. Also, here’s their new book, which is quickly becoming the go-to cookbook in our house). 

I am not the first to point this out, but let me say it anyway: when it comes to nurturing our kids’ talents, today’s parents today have it tough. Not because we know too little, but because we know too much. Way, way too much.

Nurturing talent used to be a fairly simple process, because it was mostly passive. Parents sat back and waited for the talent to show itself.

Now, parental talent-nurturing is an official industry, like organic food. Soccer, violin, chess, math, art — they all provide us with nicely constructed funnels down which we can pour endless amounts of money and time as we try to help our kids become their best selves. Tiger Mothers and Fathers stalk the landscape, carrying their superstar cubs in their mouths. Science has given us terrifyingly concrete concepts, like Critical Learning Periods, where if your kid doesn’t learn something by age X, the door of opportunity slams shut — forever!  Being a parent has gone from feeling like a laid-back observer to feeling like a frantic gardener, racing around, trying to find the best way to help talent grow.

All of which creates a question: what’s the best way to navigate this new world?

I’ve spent the last five years visiting and studying talent hotbeds, and also being the dad of four kids (10-17). So over the last few years my wife Jen and I have done our best to navigate this, and have come up with a simple list of rules that have helped us around your house, a few of which I’d like to share.

  • Don’t: Praise kids for their abilities.
  • Do: Praise kids for their efforts.
  • Why: When you praise kids for their abilities, you diminish their willingness to take risk — after all, we’re status-oriented creatures, and why would anyone who’s been labeled “talented” risk their status?

When you praise kids for their efforts, on the other hand, you increase their willingness to take risk, to fail, and thus to learn. One useful phrase to use in praising kids is to say well done. It conveys appreciation, without calling anybody a genius.

  • Don’t: Fall for the Prodigy Myth.
  • Do: Reframe struggle as positive.
  • Why: Yes, different kids learn at different rates. Yes, some kids take off like rockets; others linger in the belly of the bell curve. The thing to remember: this isn’t a sprint.The majority of prodigies flame out, and the majority of successful people come from the anonymous ranks of average Joes and Josephines.

What helps is to understand that the moments of intense struggle are really the moments when learning happens fastest. Those moments aren’t pretty — it’s when a kid is reaching toward something new and missing — but they’re fantastically productive because it’s when the brain is making and honing new connections. Your job is to find ways to celebrate those moments of struggle.

  • Don’t: Pay attention to what you kid says
  • Do: Pay attention to what your kid stares at.
  • Why: Let’s do this one in the form of a scene, in which a kid returns from first soccer/piano/karate practice.

PARENT: So how was it? How did it go? Did you like your teacher? What did you do?

KID: Ummmmm.

PARENT: Was it fun? Were you good at it? Do you think you’ll do it next week?

KID: Ummmmm.

The point is, most kids are reliably inept at expressing their inner feelings. So don’t put pressure on them to express them, because it tends to speedily diminish whatever interest they might’ve felt.

Instead, pay attention to what they stare at. Staring is the most profound act of communication that kids perform. Staring is like a neon sign saying I LOVE THIS. Watch for the stare, and follow where it leads. One of our daughters got interested in violin because we went to a performance of a teenage bluegrass band. She stared. We didn’t say much. We bought her a violin, and took her to a lesson, and she was into it. That was five years ago; she’s still playing.

  • Don’t: Seek a coach or teacher who’s like a courteous waiter.
  • Do: Seek coaches and teachers who scare you a little.
  • Why: It’s easy to confuse pleasure and comfort with actual learning. But truly good coaches and teachers are about challenging you to get to the edge of your abilities, time and time again.

Seek out coaches who are authoritative. Who know their stuff, and who take charge. A little scary is good.

  • Don’t: Celebrate victories.
  • Do: Celebrate repetition.
  • Why: Too many kids (and parents) judge their progress by the scoreboard, instead of by the amount they’ve learned. Victories are their own reward. They do not need any extra emphasis.

Celebrating repetition, on the other hand, is not done often enough, because repetition has a bad reputation. We frequently connote it with drudgery. In fact, repetition is awesome. It’s the single most powerful way the brain builds new skill circuits. So make it cool. Doing a hard task ten times in a row is great. Doing it a hundred times in a row is freaking heroic. So treat it that way.


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16 Responses to “How to Nurture Talent (Without Being a Psycho Parent)”

  1. Rogier Ummels says:

    Wauw this a great post. Every parent should read this. I’m gonna print this one out and place it in our clubhouse.

    Thanks Daniel!

  2. Wendy says:

    One of, if not the best post I’ve ever read about developing talent.
    You nailed it.
    I just want to add that too much comparing between kids is happening. Everyone seems so concerned with how well their child does compared to the children around them. It is such an absurd concept considering each child should only be measured against themself and their unique abilities and potential.

  3. djcoyle says:

    Thanks Wendy — and you make a great point. It’s crazy-hard not to compare kids’s abilities, isn’t it? You have to have a zen attitude or keep the big picture in mind, or both. When modern life puts up so many yardsticks and trophies, you almost have to create your own alternative microculture inside your family to make it work.

  4. Robert says:

    Your also make an assumption that people need to struggle to value the learning and apply it. Its due to the culture and social enviroment you grown up into assumes this is how you learn as you only need to be X good due to the comparison involved to other people around them.
    The kid will mimick their parents or some rolemodel. Once they are given their reached criteria of either matching their comparison vs the rolemodel/parent/etc…or if they struggle with it they then quit continue the progress in both cases.

    Once this is directed towards an inner evolution of them expressing the value towards their own progress then it always work.
    Adults then tend to go with instruction that they struggle with due to it fit their beliefs about learning you must struggle or else they aint matching their criteria for learning.

    That is what happens to any extra successful indvidual as they continue the progress beyound what the cultural or social expects of them due to them are able to contain within them a continued progress due to them apply it to who they want to become. since they never reach that they continiously improve and never stale out.

  5. Doc says:

    I remember growing up in Florida and that there were 15 to 20 of us kids in the same neighborhood and we had access to the now extinct “vacant lot”. I remember the competition being as intense as any I experienced in high school or college but seldom knew who “won” the game because we were continually changing players around to make the game even. Each play or pitch was our competition. Too often today the fans aren’t happy unless their team is annihilating the other. Sports won’t have it right until every game or match goes down to the last play or last second and unfortunately that will never happen. I think kids need to be able to compete at least some of the time with no coaches and no uniforms and their own rules. Maybe they should hang out with the skateboarders for a while.

  6. Tom says:

    Agree with Wendy above, one of the most simplistic ways of expressing this to parents regards developing. Repetition over victories is something i am a big believer of in my coaching sessions. Getting the children to see repetition itself as a victory is the best part.

  7. Awesome article !

    One different point of selecting a coach
    Or teacher for our kids.

    Our experience is that the kid must have chemistry
    Between the kids and the teacher or coaches!

    Scary coach will not work with our kids especially,
    When they’re before teens.

  8. djcoyle says:

    Good point, David — especially for younger kids.

  9. jamie says:

    I like all of this except the “coach who scares you a little bit.” The best coach is the dynamic one (especially with younger kids). They can be light with the kids between games/drills and before and after practice. Then they are also capable of mixing the coaching styles of command/authoritative with guide and discover methods.

    I would say that telling people to seek out a coach that scares you a little, is poor advice. You should be seeking out a coach who commands respect when the games/drills start up. Often times those coaches who scare you a little are the ones who are living and dying by the result of their team..

  10. Tom says:

    the coach who scares you a bit i believe does not mean one who is going to stand and scream at the child until they cry but is infact someone who will not always give in the the child ensuring their needs are put first instead of just pleasing them by allowing them to do their wants.

    As anyone who coaches should know, it is vitally important to be adaptable to both the group and individual and also being able to mix styles together to provide the best experience for the learner

  11. James says:

    You guys who say that the “coach who scares you a little bit” is not good advice are framing the “scary” part in a negative way, and that’s not what the author intended. Instead, he says in the LBOT, page 33, that the fear factor comes from the coach who watches you closely, is action oriented, and is at times unnervingly honest. These traits are all too rare these days, so by their very nature are at once a bit unsettling and also engender respect.

  12. Daniel Coyle,
    First off I have been enjoying many of your blogs, especially about the parent-player relationship. As a soccer player growing up I always felt that most of the time my parents were pretty laid back with me when it came to instruction (mostly because they did not know much about the game). However now as a coach, I coach an under-9 girls soccer team, I am seeing much more negative involvement from parents, much of it is instructional demands after a performance. I don’t allow them to coach during matches or training. With that being said I devised a “positive notebook” at the beginning of our season, mostly because I knew realistically it would be difficult for us to win a game. Probably because most of the girls on my team were a year younger than the opponents. My main purpose was to get the girls to create good habits at accepting failure as a way to improve, to facilitate a positive environment for them, and also to make the ride home from the games a bit more positively interactive with parents. I required that the girls write in their book immediately after the game with 4 topics: one thing that the team did well, one thing that they did well, one thing they can focus on during the next week of training to improve, and their mood. Oh, and the very first page we sat down as a team and wrote in team goals and personal goals for the upcoming year. This proved to be extremely effective for my goals, and very rewarding and gratifying for me as a coach. After every game, win or lose, the girls would run to me and ask “Are we writing in our journals today?” and at practice they would bring their journals and ask if they could write in them. This was a great tool that I implemented for them and I could see that even through loss I knew I could get far more out of them then I could with a win. We ended up winning one game last season and the results of the book had remained the same with the only difference being an overwhelming “happy” mood when we did win. However much to my pleasure I noticed that the girls, even when losing, would easily find themselves in a happy mood if they felt they played well or the team played well.
    My goal of this was achieved when I knew parents would read the journal (if their kid allowed them to) and see that the players were relatively happy and cognizant of what they knew they did well and what they could improve on. I hopefully opened the eyes of parents into realizing that their negative instruction would only lead to decreased performance over time but on the flip-side if they were positive with the children that the players would be more motivated to do well next time (motive to succeed v. motive to avoid failure). Also I saw an increase in the players attention during practice and an overall happy vibe when we would play. Thought I would share this with you. I am learning a lot from your blogs and I have your book “The Talent Code” on its way to me in the mail. Cant wait to read it.
    Thanks!!

  13. djcoyle says:

    Hey Randy, Thanks for sharing that — I love it. Navigating the Parent Issue is the toughest thing coaches deal with. Your players are lucky to have you as their coach. Best, Dan

  14. Dennis says:

    Great post!
    I was just curious, are there any studies supporting this (status = less likely to take risks = less likely to fail = less likely to learn and develop)? It sound more than reasonable, but I need to get it on paper so to speak since I’m going to use it as a source to a curriculum I’m writing (if there’s evidence in a report of some kind).

    Best regards
    Dennis

  15. djcoyle says:

    Hi Dennis, Good question — and here’s one of several studies: https://www.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/cgi-bin/drupalm/system/files/Intelligence%20Praise%20Can%20Undermine%20Motivation%20and%20Performance.pdf

    For a mainstream wrap-up, check out “The Power and Peril of Praising Your Kids” – http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/

    Best,
    Dan

  16. Dennis says:

    Thank you so much Dan! Appririate it loads! 😀

    Best regards

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