When good parenting means pushing your kid off the boat

When good parenting means pushing your kid off the boat

One of the most common fears young people face early in their lives is trying something new. The uncertainty and apprehension of failure can be crippling. And if it’s not overcome as a child, it can haunt someone throughout life. One person who’s earned some valuable wisdom struggling to find courage is Kerri Whitfield.

Moving to a new town

Two years after her family’s move, Kerri was still feeling a bit like the new kid in town. She’d made a few friends but still didn’t know that many other twelve-year-olds. Watching one of her girlfriends play on a softball team that summer, Kerri sat in the bleachers and secretly wished she was on the field with her. “It looks like fun to play,” she thought. And she’d make so many new friends that way, too. Eventually her friend asked Kerri if she wanted to join the team. This was her big opportunity! What did Kerri do?

She said, “I told her, ‘No.’”

Three-plus decades later, Kerri explains that decision this way. “I was so scared. I’d never played softball before. I’d never played any organized sport before! So I didn’t know anything about the game. I didn’t know the rules, or how to play. All I could think about was how I would fail because I didn’t know how. It never occurred to me they could teach me those things. So I just said no.”

The remorse didn’t take long to set in.

I was so sad. I kept going to the games and watching them play. There were times I had to wipe away tears, hoping no one had seen me cry. I so wanted to be out on that field. It’s a decision I still regret.”

That event kicked off a lifetime of what Kerri now sees as missed opportunities. Her fear of failure kept her from succeeding at many new things. Sometimes it kept her from trying in the first place, like the singing lessons she never took or the new job she never applied for. And sometimes that fear made her quit soon after starting. She recalls a failed attempt at gymnastics. “I hadn’t been in the class for long, and we were learning how to do the splits. One of the coaches said that if we couldn’t get all the way down, they would push us the rest of the way. I never went back. Somehow my parents never challenged that decision. So that was the end of my gymnastics career.”

One of her more memorable successes was in learning to waterski. A friend had invited her to ski. But when it was Kerri’s turn, she was too afraid to even get in the water. After a few minutes of grace and ineffective coaxing, her girlfriend’s father pushed her off the boat. Kerri Whitfield learned to ski that day. And the next time, she jumped off the boat by herself.

The Lesson

It probably wasn’t until she had children of her own that Kerri decided her insecurities would no longer impact her or her growing family. She shares these stories with her son and daughter to help them have the courage to try new things. Looking back, there are three lessons she thinks she learned.

  • “First, I wished I’d shared my desires more openly with my parents. Maybe then they could have encouraged me to play softball.
  • “Second, I wish I’d understood then that I didn’t have to be the best at everything on the first day. Everyone has to learn, even the experts. If I’d known that, I might have gone back for the second day of gymnastics class.
  • “Third, I learned that part of life is getting unexpectedly wet. Because sometimes good parenting means pushing you off the boat.”

As with all the stories in these podcasts, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Can you recall two or three things you tried but gave up on soon after? What were they? Is it too late to try again?
  2. Name something you’d like to do now but have been afraid to try.
  3. How long do you think it takes for people to get really good at something new, like learning to play the guitar or throw a baseball or write poetry?
  4. Can you think of something some people are just naturally good at without having to learn and practice?

[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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