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Pushy Parents: Time for a Title Rethink?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Pushy parent mum sitting at a table at home helping her small son with his homework from school as he writes notes in a notebook

Pushy Parent is a term that did not sit well with me long before I become a parent, and now that I am a father, my opinion has not altered. It has long been my view that parents on the whole know what is best for their kids, they are at the helm and best placed to understand the idiosyncrasies of their kids better than anyone.

Is it time for a rethink on how this term is bandied around without much thought, just because someone wants the best for their kid(s)? Are we just envious of another’s child excelling? Is this just a simple case of looking in the mirror and seeing the shortcomings of our own parenting abilities? Whilst there will always be anomalies, I am yet to meet parents who are not motivated by wanting the best for their kids!

What has motivated this blog post?

I read an article by the BBC about a father called Ray Wood, who believes that he can turn his seven-year-old daughter into a tennis champion. He has devised a carefully well-structured plan to achieve this. I happened to like this article and saved it for a later read, but when I returned to it I was drawn to the comments section. Reading through these responses it became apparent that almost everyone had become qualified, lifted themselves onto a pedal stool and expelled Ray Wood to the dungeon for pushy parents.

By pure coincidence a few weeks later, with this article fresh on my mind, I happened to take my son to the hairdressers for a haircut. As it is often the case with me, I embarked on small talk with this lovely lady, Jenna, who had just strapped my nervous son into a Porsche-like chair, and was primed with scissors in hand. The hairdresser had taken a keen interest in my family so it was not long before I asked about her kids, their ages and which school they go to

Jenna mentioned that one of her kids was at St Olave's Grammar School, which just happens to be an outstanding school that is really difficult to gain a place to. I was now totally impressed, so more questions followed, and she revealed that her kids have a natural talent for mathematics, gained from her husband’s side of the family – nice of her to credit an ND.

Jenna informed me that she and her husband had a duty to ensure that their kids’ natural abilities could flourish, however, they find they are often referred to as pushy parents. Once again, I was faced with this ugly phrase.

Have pushy parents touched a raw nerve with me?

As parents, my wife and I often encounter the pushy parent phrase; people often use it in a joking, light-hearted way in conversations with us.

Both of us have achieved high in the academic and sports worlds. My wife studied to become a doctor and was also a Swedish athlete. I obtained a PhD in the field of Engineering and also played football at academy level and conducted athletics to national level. As a result of these achievements, depending on the company we are in, people will often offer statements to the effect of

“I feel sorry for your kids as they have to achieve in the academic world”

“Your kids have a lot to live up to as you have done very well in sports”

Not far away from offering their carefully formulated and educated guesses on our kids’ future directions, we are often presented with a closing gambit of

“You will be one of those pushy parents”

Pushy parent dad helping daughter with homework at home

So why am I in agreement with Ray Wood?

From the outset I believe the BBC reporter is painting Ray Wood to be a parent who is trying to force his kids into something he could never achieve, with lines like

Ray came across as a likeable and unassuming family man.

Yet, as he talks, you soon realise he is making some jaw-dropping claims.

In fact, the article leads me to question whether the BBC tennis correspondent, and the wider population, actually understand what it takes to create a top sportsman or sportswoman! Ray understands what it takes and states that

 Talent is made, it's not born.

This assertion by Mr Wood is in-keeping with Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule”, which has gained traction. This rule implies that success depends on the time we spend in deliberate practice to master whatever we plan on becoming an expert in.

I feel that I qualify to pass judgement on Ray’s statement about talent. Aside from my own sporting achievements, I have coached and worked with international track athletes, above national level golf and tennis players, professional football clubs and players as well as working with the English under 20 female team (as a speed technique specialist), with the majority going on to gain senior caps for England women.

Through my involvement in elite sports, I have come to the conclusion that the majority of sports are based on skill and not on genetic make-up. Clearly there are a few exceptions where genetics come into play:

  • If you want to become the best sprinter in the world, you will need super-fast-twitch muscle, unfortunately this is limited to only a few on planet earth.
  • If you want to become the best distance runners, you will need to have heritage links to East Africa (Ethiopia and Kenya). For all those Europeans thinking that Mo Farah is English, sorry all, but he was born in Somalia.
  • If you want to be the best cyclist or swimmer you need to have a high VO2 uptake. Whilst you can train to improve this, those with the best are born with it. For example, I was a sprinter, and typically VO2 max is around 55 ml/kg/min for sprinters, but I had a VO2 max of 65 ml/kg/min, which is high. This was not gained as a result of heavy training on my behalf; it was largely because I was born with it.

Aside from these few exceptions above, top sports like basketball, football, golf, gymnastics, rowing and tennis are all skill-based sports where investment in practice can set you apart. In many of these sports, the athletes start young and develop an instinctive feel. Time invested allows them to cover most game play situations and scenarios. I mean

  • How does a Formula 1 driver control an out-of-control racing car at 200mph, whilst at the same time having a calm, concise conversation with his team over the radio? Answer: practice from an early age.
  • How do Messi and Ronaldo float on the pitch as if other players do not exist? Answer: practice from an early age. They have been through so many hours and hours on the training pitch alone going through plays, that when they find themselves in a game under the same condition their bodies take over – muscle memory. Without muscle memory they will not have sufficient time to react and carry out the skill.
  • How does a tennis player return a serve travelling well over 130mph? Answer: practice. They can guess where the ball may go based on ball toss, server position, wind, play conditions, etc. gained through hours of practice from a very young age. In the modern game the players are starting from the age of three or four years old.

Because tennis players start so young now, if Ray’s daughters are to have a chance of dominating female tennis then he does not have any choice but to start them playing at this age. So all those comments about Ray being a pushy parent is contrary to what is required to be the best or amongst the best. If that is what he has decided for his girls and they agree with it and enjoy it then this is the only way. If the kids decide at a later age that they no longer like the sport and are not willing to put in the practice, then no matter what Ray tries the girls will not reach the pinnacle of female tennis.

Tennis, along with other sports that require kids to start from an early age, has long been associated with parents being pushy. But Novak Djokovic’s father Srdjan Djokovic insisted in an interview that he wasn’t driving his toddler to be a great tennis player; he said that he felt an obligation to nurture his son’s very evident and abundant talent.

Parents are unrealistic with their careers and dreams. They decide that their child is great and put so much pressure on the child that it cannot handle it. When it grows up and learns how to live, chaos comes. The whole family is destroyed. I didn’t decide that Novak was a talent, because I am not a tennis player. I listened to the advice of others.

Now, that is the key. What Srdjan Djokovic, Ray Wood, and Jenna identified was or is a child’s gift and then their simply being duty bound to help nourish it. In previous blog posts I have written about A Child’s Calling: Signature Strengths and A Child’s Calling: Multiple Intelligences, not Intelligence Quotient. Both posts deal with identifying a child’s natural calling, and once this is identified I do believe that you’re duty bound to help your child grow and develop this gift. But should helping your child reach their full potential attract the pushy parent tag?

Pushy parentm getting music teacher to show child how to play piano

Is it time to rethink terming people pushy parents?

Whilst it may appear that I am narrow-minded in my opinions, I am only trying to provide an alternative against the one-sided view that the majority of parents wanting the best for their kids are pushy parents. For the few success stories in our top sports, musicians and academics stars are millions that did not make it. There are many dozens who fall far short of their potential, and there are the hundreds of stories outlining that children of pushy parents are more likely to reject them in later life. Does this mean that we stop trying for the best for our kids?

Whilst our children may have all the right genetic pulls to be successful in sports, my wife and I are not dreaming of raising sporting superstar kids, we are simply awakening their senses. We are introducing and exposing them to all aspects of life, not just sports. Through this, should they show talent or show interest and enthusiasm in a skill, we will be there to support them and make whatever they choose as enjoyable for them as possible.

Both my wife and I believe that what you put into life is what you get out, this means that you need to work hard in whatever you choose, we teach this to our kids and hope they will apply this thinking to their lives also. This approach, I do not think, makes us or many parents pushy. I believe this term needs to disappear, after all, if you aim for the sky and fall short you may just find some cloud.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, holds the view that so-called pushy parents are demanding and manipulative and they provide the best possible upbringing, so stop whingeing. Maybe we should embrace a mother of father who is willing to go the extra mile and not tag them a pushy parent!

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