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Are you pushing your kids too hard — or not hard enough?

Kim Grundy is a mom, writer, expert laundry folder and sandwich maker, not necessarily in that order. Raised in Oklahoma, she is now a West Coast gal and lives in California with her husband and two sons, along with one dog, two fish (oo...

Tiger Mom versus Too soft mom

Whether you want your child to be the star athlete or get an academic scholarship for college, how do you know if you are pushing your child too hard — or not hard enough? We talk to parenting experts to find out how to strike the right balance.
Overscheduled kid

It’s only natural that we as parents have high hopes for our kids and we want them to succeed. We dream of our child getting that full-ride academic scholarship to the Ivy League school, playing professional baseball for the Dodgers or even making the honor roll at school. If your child isn't quite as enthusiastic as you are, what is the best way to motivate your child to succeed?

Author Amy Chua wrote a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, which talks about how Western parents don’t teach their children to excel, while it is expected of them in China. Although some of her advice seems a bit extreme compared to our more laid-back parenting approaches (no play dates! no television!), some of her advice makes sense.

So how do you motivate your child to be successful — without turning into a full-fledged Tiger Mom? Let’s turn to another Tiger... Tiger Woods, that is.

Tiger Woods’ advice

There is no denying that golf superstar Tiger Woods put in a lot of time and effort that allowed him to reach the success he has today, but he recently told the Washington Post that his dad didn’t push him into golf.

“I fell in love with golf at an early age — that was just my deal. I think the reason I did fall in love with it was because my dad kept it fun and light and I just enjoyed being out there,” Woods said. “That’s what I want to do with [my daughter] Sam or Charlie. If they play golf, no lessons. We are just going to go out there and just have fun."

He went on to say that he and his dad Earl would just go out and hit balls together. “That’s how I learned the game and my dad just kept it so light, fun and competitive, and I fell in love with it.”

Sure, Woods has the natural ability and his parents did eventually get him into lessons to foster his natural ability — but the important thing is he was naturally drawn to the sport because it was fun.

Figure out what motivates your child

Perhaps your child loved football at the beginning of the season, but now complains about going to practice. Or perhaps you have to nag and threaten your child to study for their math test. How can you get them to self-motivate?

“As parents, we tend to expect our children to be motivated by the same things that motivate us,” explains parenting coach Elaine Taylor-Klaus of ImpactADHD. “The trick is to figure out what does motivate the child. For example, my son was not exactly motivated to join the cross country team, but he was motivated to run to a yogurt store with the team on Fridays. That was fine with me — I just wanted him exercising, so if he chose running because of the yogurt, instead of karate — well, okay then!”

Parenting expert (and father of 7!) Robert Nickell (aka “Daddy Nickell”) of DaddyScrubs said that giving a little incentive can be the push they need to get over the hump. “A little bribery may be okay. I know parents who pay for certain grades, or reward a successful swimming lesson," he says. "Sometimes, bribing through the hard times (like getting over a fear of the water) will result in a competitive swimmer who ends up loving the water. Sometimes, it just results in a kid who performs for a reward. Figure out what you want your final result to be, and keep those rewards and bribes in check.”

When your child is feeling anxious

Perhaps your child wants to join the debate team or try out for the basketball team, but is feeling anxious or nervous about trying something new. How can you get them out of their shell?

“Speak to the coach or teacher, and enlist some help,” suggests Taylor-Klaus. “Bring the child early, so that the coach or teacher can give your child a 'job' to help out, [such as] equipment, clipboards, whatever — give the child some connection to the teacher, and something to do so she or he is not standing around waiting.”

She also suggests finding a friend or older sibling that can give them pointers — or even tell them a story about how you were nervous about something but did it anyway.

Challenges are good for kids!

Conquering that difficult math assignment or winning first place in cross country can be challenging, but these skills they are learning will help them in life, according to Meaghan Roberts, author of Sticks & Stones and My Rock.

“Overcoming obstacles is also a great self-esteem booster for children,” says Roberts. “Parents must encourage their children to do their best and not give up because something is difficult. Life will present challenges on many occasions. It is the responsibility of the parent to show their child that he/she can overcome anything, even when the child may not believe it. An opportunity to overcome a challenge is a great chance for parents to show their children they are capable of achieving anything they put their mind to. Encouraging your children to not quit a sport or to achieve good grades also demonstrates to them that you believe and have faith in them.”

Should you let your kid drop out of a team sport?

"Don’t quit without a good fight,” says Nickell. “Don’t let your child give up after the first battle. If your child has committed to a team, a play, or a project that cannot continue without his/her participation, your child needs to follow through on the commitment. Otherwise, encourage your child to continue and give things a little longer to settle down."

He says it is important to figure out why your child wants to quit. "Maybe your child needs a friend or a victory. Look at the circumstances of why he or she wants to quit. Is it just because they aren’t the best on the team or is it because they are scared of what they need to do, or do they simply just hate it? There is no hard and fast rule about when is a good time to quit — each individual situation needs to be looked at and taken into consideration.”

Signs of pushing kids too hard

Some kids can handle baseball practice on Monday and Wednesday, guitar on Tuesday and golf on Thursday without batting an eye, while other kids do better when they focus on just one extracurricular activity at a time.

Taylor-Klaus says to let your child take the lead, but be aware of some signs that they are over-scheduled, such as crying, acting grouchy or irritable, slipping grades, headaches or stomachaches or if they say it is not fun anymore. “Generally speaking, one sport and one 'cultural' activity (music, art, etc.) at the same time may already be pushing it for some kids,” says Taylor-Klaus. “More than that and it's a pretty good guess you're overdoing it. Don't be afraid to back off on one, and take turns (karate in the winter, softball in the spring). And make sure it's fun!”

“I encourage parents to maintain a pretty high bar for their children, academically, athletically and otherwise,” says clinical psychologist Dr. John Duffy, author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. “Too often, I have found that when a parent lowers his or her bar, their child will tend to follow suit. The lack of belief in himself tends to perpetuate, and is a difficult trend to reverse.”

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