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Making the A Team: The Rights and Privileges of Childhood

Somehow, over the last fifteen years, parents have increasingly embraced the idea that rules are for other people's children, and that bending them to make things easier in the short term is a good idea.
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happy children kids group  at...
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Earlier this week, I caught up with a friend who teaches swimming to children. She's a fantastic coach -- she swam competitively throughout college -- with lots of experience training kids. As many coaches do, she divides children into 'A' and 'B' relay teams for competitions so that they can swim with others at a comparable skill level.

Recently, however, one mum took issue with this. She approached my friend after a lesson and asked her to rename the divisions the 'A team' and 'A-minus team.' Being part of something labeled 'B team,' she worried, was hurting her daughter's feelings.

My friend was taken aback, to say the least. Fifteen years ago, when Barb started coaching (and I started nannying), parents who suggested that their child's delicate constitution required such adjustments and euphemisms were seen as oddballs, and their requests were met with a raised eyebrow and a firm "no." Now, not even a generation later, Barb and I are astounded to find that parents like these are everywhere.

Somehow, over the last fifteen years, parents have increasingly embraced the idea that rules are for other people's children, and that bending them to make things easier in the short-term is a good idea. But being a good parent doesn't mean keeping your children happy in every moment. It means raising them to be healthy, independent, gracious and happy as adults. It means setting them up for success, not a rude awakening. When short-term and long-term happiness appear to conflict, the choice is easy.

The British are famous for our adherence to rules -- some people joke that whenever more than two of us are in a room, we start forming a queue -- and there's a reason for that. Traditional British parenting philosophies prioritize teaching children how to master rules and overcome obstacles, rather than attempt to bend or remove them. Our children are all the better for it.

That's not to say that we believe children should be automatons, or accept rules that unfairly disadvantage them or others. When a rule is unjust, we speak up and teach our children to do the same. ut when a rule is merely inconvenient, well, that's an entirely different story.

Bearing with inconvenient rules and expectations is a key part of growing up. In the real world, if we break the speed limit, we risk getting a ticket, and if we skip work, we can expect to be fired. We pity those who can't seem to get out of their own way -- the grown-ups who flout rules like children and pay the price with unsuccessful careers and relationships.

As parents and caretakers, we must use our skills, experience and love to help children cope when things don't go their way. It isn't easy -- watching a crying child can be even more difficult than being one! But because children's brain development traps them in moments of overwhelming emotion and prevents them from seeing the big picture, it's up to grown-ups to help them process disappointment and move on.

Unconditional Love, Conditional Rewards
In the U.S., and, I'm afraid, increasingly in Britain, we've come to believe that self-esteem is something we can hand to children along with a packed lunch or a bicycle helmet. In reality, a child's self-esteem is not a gift that caretakers can impart -- it's something that must grow organically as they do. All we can do is offer them external support and unconditional love until they are old enough to generate it for themselves.

We must be careful, however, to differentiate unconditional love from unconditional rewards. Rewards are by definition based on merit and effort, not on intrinsic personal worth. It is just as important that your child knows he can't expect good grades and praise unless he studies as it is that he knows you love him, regardless of his marks. Unconditional love does not mean making sure children are on the 'A team' regardless of how good they are; it means teaching them to practice even when they're not in the mood, and showing that you'll be there for them even if they lose.

When parents fail to recognize the difference, children suffer the consequences. A child who believes that she deserves to be on the A team, regardless of her talent, skill or effort, is a child unprepared for the real world.

What this mum should have done when her daughter came home upset at making B Team was help her understand what she could do to make the cut next time. Did she practice consistently? Did she get extra help from the coach or teacher? Perhaps there's a book about inspiration or technique they could read together. Alternatively, if swimming is her daughter's only activity, she could help find another challenge to shift the focus. If your budget doesn't allow signing up for private lessons or teams, try helping your child audition for a choir, join a scouting troop or arrange a club around an interest shared with friends. There's no reason to shuffle children to activities every day ("Softball? Must be Tuesday!"), but having more than one opportunity for success can help take the pressure off.

Making the A Team
When the coach told this mum, as firmly and politely as possible, that it's standard to divide swimmers into 'A' and 'B' relay teams and that if her daughter wanted to be called 'A team,' she'd better put in the time to improve, the mum didn't take it very well. After a few moments, though, she must have realized how silly her request sounded. She shot her an apologetic look on the way out and didn't bring it up again.

Athletes like my friend aren't born strong. They work hard, and even as they nurse sore muscles, they know that soreness is a sign of muscle fibers healing back stronger than before. Inner strength works much the same way. It's time that parents and caretakers fight back against this two-sided coin of entitlement and overprotection, and teach children how to put in the work to make the 'A' team.