I am what you might call a “trophy parent.” Daily, I catch myself showing off my kids to the world. From helping too much with homework in the pursuit of perfect grades to bragging about them on Facebook, I want my family and friends to see only the best in my children. My kids are perfectly placed on a shelf for the world to see.
Looking around, it seems I’m not alone in this regard. Performance-driven parenting is an easy trap to fall into. Most every Christian parent I know wants well-behaved, successful and responsible kids who love Jesus. We encourage, nurture and direct them to that end. But if we aren’t careful, those healthy motives can get twisted, and our kids can spend their childhood fulfilling their parents’ dreams and needs, losing out on discovering who God created them to be and what He is preparing them to do.
How we got here
My grandparents’ generation did not raise trophy children. Grandma and Grandpa had different concerns, like providing the basics of food, shelter, clothes and education. Success in these areas brought them to their knees in thanks to God. Kids worked hard to do their part. The home did not revolve around their activities. Responsibility and duty were the primary goals of parenting.
I believe the shift toward “trophy children” started with my generation, and it is rooted in our privileged society and a desire to ensure that our kids succeed, which sometimes means protecting them from failure. Around the 1980s, our culture’s parenting style became more encouraging and nurturing. Hovering even. We did not want our kids to feel like losers. Instead of “Three strikes and you’re out,” we allowed kids to stay in the batter’s box until they hit the ball. We affixed gold stars to every assignment to boost self-esteem. We overindulged them with excessive praise for every attempt, regardless of outcome, to help them all feel like winners.
Other parents have gone a different direction, obsessing over their kids’ achievements and looking for big moments on the stage and field. We accelerate progress with preschool reading programs and year-round sports and activities, pursing marks of excellence that often have no relation to the real-world milestones needed later in life.
I was recently teaching on this subject at a summer camp. After one session, a parent came up and spoke for awhile. At one point, venting, he said, “I feel like we’re all on the same bus together, but it’s so hard to stop.” I agreed with that father. So many of us are barreling toward a future in which our kids may miss out on the life and possibilities that God has for them.
But I believe we can stop this bus. To do so, we must first take an honest look at our performance-driven tendencies. It may feel like a punch in the gut, but it’s worth it.
The many faces of trophy parenting
I believe performance-driven parenting can be divided into a number of different categories. Like me, you may struggle with some or many of the following parenting tendencies. Let’s look at each of these behaviors, and then we’ll discuss some solutions that can help us stop the bus.
Vanity Parenting means using a child’s accomplishments and attributes to impress family and friends. It only takes a few minutes on Facebook to see this parent in full swing. Her status updates are carefully crafted to present an image she wants the world to see. If her children appear successful, then she will look successful.
Perfection Parenting raises the bar too high. This parent experiences frequent irritation and frustration when his children make mistakes or don’t measure up. The issue is not that his kids are “not getting it,” but rather that his expectations are misplaced.
Competitive Parenting compares the strengths and weaknesses of her child to that of other children. When we compare our child’s weaknesses to the strengths of another, we live in defeat and discouragement. Comparing a child’s strengths to another’s weaknesses will give the child an overinflated view of himself. Each child is unique, so no comparing necessary.
ROI Parenting looks for a “return on investment” from sports and activities. The hope is that one day the time and money spent on activities will be paid back in the form of college scholarships or a career in that particular activity. There is nothing wrong with signing kids up for organized leagues, but when we commit them to specific activities at early ages, they miss out on other opportunities, not to mention valuable playground time and neighborhood pickup games.
Gifted Parenting believes God did something extra special in the birth of her child. This tendency is often seen in parents who struggled with infertility or endured a long adoption process. Parents who believe their child is extra special look for extra special opportunities and activities for their child.
Companion Parenting has parents shifting their performance expectations of kids to be relational in nature. This can happen in a home where the parent needs a buddy to participate in sports or hobbies. It can also happen in a strained marriage (or single-parent home) where the child takes on the emotional burdens of a spouse.
Rescue Parenting takes an unexpected route toward success. These parents create “successful” environment for their kids by protecting them from loss, pain and struggle. This is the hovering parent who nurses them through challenging situations by simply removing failure as an option. This parent forgets that character is built more on the bench than on the field. We all have stories of trials that shaped us into who we are today.
Taking our kids off the shelf
So how do we start remedying these tendencies? First, we start by avoiding the faulty “input-output” theory of parenting. This theory teaches that what we put into our children is what we will get out of them. Parents take too much credit and too much blame for the way their children turn out. We may be the primary input into our children, but we are not the only input. Coaches, teachers, pastors, friends, grandparents, neighbors, media and siblings all write messages upon the hearts of our kids. And that’s not to mention a child’s own unique will.
Second, if you or I have tiger-mom tendencies, we need to separate our child’s performance from their worth. This will also start the process of separating our children from our worth and identity. Let’s teach children to take responsibility for their own emotions, words and actions, but not for our emotional stability. Let’s encourage kids to work hard and achieve, but with an appropriate emotional investment in each performance, sport and activity.
Third, we should define the length of commitment we expect our children to have to a sport or activity. Is it one month? A season? Their entire childhood? My wife and I challenged our 7-year-old son, Carson, to commit to taekwondo for the time it took to complete each belt. He committed to training for his yellow belt and got it, then moved on to his green and blue belts. Down the road, he may choose to try something else instead of becoming a seventh-degree black belt. Just because your son started in a sport when he was 5, it does not mean he needs to go all the way through his senior year of high school with it. Over time, your child’s preferences and personality may change, and other opportunities may suit him better.
Fourth, let’s examine our parenting motives, which often form the basis for our parenting strategies. Some call this “parenting with the end in mind.” As a starting point, we must determine what’s important; then our goals, schedules and discipline strategies will follow. For example, if getting your kid into a good college is a top priority, then you will spend your time, money and resources to that end. If getting recognition around town as the parent of a star athlete is important to you, then you will push your child to continue to participate even when the child wants to try a new sport or even get out of sports altogether.
Finally, remember that parenting isn’t for wimps! I’ve found that parenting is the hardest job I do. It comes with frustration, heartache and joy. Treating my children like trophies just adds more pressure. Rather than experiencing life, faith and maturity, trophy children embrace privilege, perfectionism and self-absorption.
It doesn’t matter if we have toddlers, tweens or teens; there is hope. No performing, perfecting or comparing is necessary.
Are you ready to pledge to turn away from performance-driven parenting? If so, repeat after me:
“My children are a wonderful blessing from the Lord and a welcomed addition to my family. They will not be with me forever, so I will prepare them accordingly. It is not my goal to hold on to them for life, take credit for what God is doing through them, or show them off to family and friends.
“I am not a perfect parent. Jesus Christ was the only perfect person to walk this planet. I will make mistakes along the way. By the grace of God, I will love, teach, correct and discipline my children.”
There, don’t you feel better? Now go take your kids down off the shelf.
Ted Cunningham is the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church and author of Trophy Child.