health

MIA: Oops. We're accidentally raising a generation of soft kids.

Mia and Coco.

Yesterday during a crucial moment in her Under 9s soccer game, my daughter accidentally scored an own-goal. She was defending close to the goal square when someone from the other team kicked the ball which bounced off her shin and went straight into the net.

Own goal.

It was awkward and embarrassing for her. Mortifying and humiliating. Dispiriting. Disappointing.

As I watched from the sidelines with a knot in my stomach, I saw all those emotions flicker across my little girl’s face as the other team cheered and her team-mates look crestfallen. Some of them shouted at her in frustration. Others patted her on the shoulder and told her not to worry. I could see she was worried though.

I wondered if she would cry. I wondered if her love of soccer would be diminished, her confidence crushed.

As a parent, one of the hardest things is to bear witness as your child grapples with negative emotions. We’re programmed – most of us – to want to shield them from unpleasant experiences and the emotional fallout they bring. But in previous generations, there was a tacit understanding that you could not – and should not – try to protect kids from life itself.

Because shit happens and part of growing up is learning how to cope with that.

Not anymore.

No more playing to win for junior football.

Ever since ‘parent’ went from something you were to something you did, there’s been a dramatic shift in what parenthood looks like. Now it’s all about the holy grail of parenting: your child’s self-esteem.

It must be actively built up, carefully nurtured and fiercely defended at any cost. Nothing is more important than your child feeling good about him or herself. All the time. No matter what.

Which is totally doable if you swaddle your kid in bubble wrap and then put them into storage until they’re, oh, 25. How else to protect them from negative emotions?

Today, everyone is buzzing with news that the AFL are introducing new rules for all junior players under 10 that will mean no scoreboard, ladders or match results. According to the AFL, the reason for the scoring ban is to eliminate the idea of competition and instead, encourage the spirit of participation.

Ah, participation. Also know as Everyone-Gets-A-Prize.

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No doubt the intentions of the AFL are good. Everyone who is concerned about the physical, mental and emotional well-being of children have good intentions. And in a society where so many children suffer the most appalling neglect and abuse, this is to be admired and encouraged.

But here’s my fear: in trying to protect our kids from disappointment, failure and frustration, we’re robbing them of the chance to become resilient. And by prioritising the sugar-rush of self-esteem over resilience we’re actually setting our kids up to fail. We’re accidentally raising a generation of soft kids who will soon become soft adults, shocked and confused each time they miss out on a job, get dumped by a partner or encounter an obstacle. Because there’s no participation prize in real life.

As an adult, nobody cares whether you participate in the workforce or in a relationship or in buying a house. There’s nobody scurrying ahead of you removing roadblocks from your path.

“Back at my daughter’s soccer match, the game continued. She didn’t cry.”

Kids sport is actually great practice for life. There are winners and losers, triumphs and disappointments, frustrations and heartbreaks, rules and consequences. And by taking those away from kids, I don’t think we’re doing them any favours. We’re simply setting them up to be dysfunctional adults who are unable to cope with set-backs or adversity.

Back at my daughter’s soccer match, the game continued. She didn’t cry. Her team went on to win. But afterwards, we talked about what had happened. How bad it felt. She was surprisingly sanguine but we agreed it might be a good idea to do a bit of soccer practice at home with her older brother.

Look, I’m not going to pretend my kids are any more resilient than their peers. With the best of intentions, I think we’re all in the middle of raising the softest generation in history. That worries me hugely. So I’m trying to resist my natural inclination towards constantly making them feel good and instead, attempting to see every real or metaphorical own-goal as an opportunity for them to get a little tougher.

Because participation is non-negotiable. And there’s no prize for turning up to your life.

Do you think the ‘non-competitive’ changes to kids’ sport are a good idea? Or is a decision like this just trying to shelter kids from real life?

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