We all make mistakes. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing, you’re going to miss a cue, lose track of time, or take an extra step. 

There is a fine line between showing our kids that we love them unconditionally and also giving them the right kind of guidance to keep moving forward. They have to keep on moving forward if they’re going to become the successful and happy adults that we want them to grow up to be. 

To do this, we need to learn to help them build on their strengths, rather than pointing out their weaknesses. 

Fulfillment and achievement are two sides of the same coin

As parents, we are charged with giving our kids the space and support to grow from their mistakes. It’s we who are responsible for showing them the path forward. Oftentimes we get fixated on the ways that we quantify that path forward. We look for the things that we can measure, like fencing rankings or test scores. 

The less tangible things, like happiness and self-fulfillment, well we cannot easily measure those things. It’s not so easy to say “My child is highly fulfilled in their life.” That’s subjective. You can’t just measure it. On the other hand, it’s very easy to point directly to an achievement – “My child is the top-ranked fencer in their age category.”

The true conundrum here is that both of these are necessary. If you go too far to one side, you won’t give your child the scaffolding they need to succeed. Achievement does equal self-fulfillment, in one sense at least. If a child, or an adult for that matter, does not believe that they are capable of achieving the things they want to achieve in life, then they don’t value themselves. In the right context, chasing those big goals is an integral part of self-fulfillment.

One way to think of this is as two gears in a machine (the machine would be your child). You have to have both gears, fitting together and spinning at the correct speed, to make it work. Neither is less important.

Two ways to view mistakes

There are two ways to offer guidance when someone makes a mistake. Either you can tell them what they did wrong, or you can tell them how they can build on what they did right. 

The easiest way is the first one. Pointing out mistakes is simple, especially when mistakes are the odd thing out. If a child is mostly successful, then the dark spot of failure is what jumps out at us. All too often, that’s the thing we are quick to point out. It’s our immediate reaction. 

Though this is not always the case, it’s often true that we parents are living out our childhood experiences through our children. We are vicariously trying to correct the mistakes that we made as young people by making sure our kids don’t repeat them. 

In essence, there’s not a thing wrong with wanting your child to have a better experience than you did. Not even a little bit. It’s healthy for you to want them to improve over the life you had. In fact, if you didn’t want them to have a better life than you had, something definitely would be amiss. 

The trouble here is that parents often end up defining success and happiness for their children. They get caught up in trying to get their kids to fix the mistakes that they themselves have made. If we can only fix those problems, then everything will be alright!

Here’s the big problem with that kind of thinking: pointing out problems all the time doesn’t fix them. Building on positives, now that’s a way to fix problems. With this tactic, you can do it without repeating the negative cycles that you might have experienced yourself. This is the real way to get your children to have a better experience than you had. 

Sports parents

As this is a fencing blog, here will talk about fencing aspects, even knowing that unfortunately, this applies to every area of my parenting. I always see a lot of mistakes in how my children train and compete, from how they didn’t work hard enough and cut corners in the class to what actions they did wrong in the tournament, and of course, I masterfully succeed to connect wrong actions in the tournament to the cut corners in the training.

And then point to these.

Well, that’s counter-productive.

Because when I was in their age and I faced my parents’ critique, what did I personally do? Rarely improved in the areas they critiqued. Mostly improved in the areas of how better hide my mistakes. Well, it turned out this passed in genes, as my kids do the same.

How to mend a broken arm

Here’s a pointed scenario to prove this point. 

Imagine your child has fallen off their bike and broken their arm. They are screaming in pain, and their arm is twisted in a way that looks completely unnatural. What is your first instinct? Is it to fuss at them for not paying attention to the curb, or is it to pick them up and get them to a doctor?

Obviously, you wouldn’t lay into your child when they’ve gotten injured and tell them how horrible they are for breaking their arm. You would first take them to the doctor and have a protective cast put on it to allow their body to heal. 

During the next few weeks, you’d have discussions with them about how this happened and what they could do to prevent it. You’d talk about their mistake so that they could think of ways not to do it again in the future. The instinct here for parents is to protect that child at all costs, so naturally you’d go to a supportive position. You would probably praise them repeatedly for wearing a helmet because you could imagine the alternatives. A broken arm is small potatoes compared to a head injury. 

More than anything, you are thankful that the fall was not worse. Your child is in pain, and you want to protect them, but you are also able to put it in perspective. You can prioritize their health by encouraging helmet use, rather than going all in about how they failed by falling down. 

Positive parenting makes sense

Don’t touch the stove. 

Stay out of the street. 

Keep away from strangers.

These are all things that parents say to their children over and over again to keep them safe. They’re also all negative ways of looking at a situation. Positive parenting is all about telling kids what they should do, rather than what they shouldn’t do. 

Put your hand on the counter, not the stove. 

Walk on the sidewalk.

Stay with people you can trust. 

These achieve the same ends that the parent is trying to get to, but they do so in a positive way that supports growth for the child. We want them to have a good mental attitude. 

Let’s do some fencing examples now. 

Don’t forget your fencing bag. 

Stop daydreaming during class. 

You aren’t focused at all in your bouts.

Now let’s talk about what it looks like when a fencing parent tells a child what they are doing right instead. 

Great job remembering your fencing bag last time. How were you able to remember it?

I saw you looking right at your coach during class. What did you learn?

What do you think is the most important thing to pay attention to when you’re in a bout?

In each of these scenes, we’ve turned a negative comment into a positive comment that builds the fencer up. The information they’re getting is the same, but the way you’re delivering it is now accessible to them. You’re building them up instead of tearing them down. 

Well, the truth is it’s not easy to do as a parent, and you will have a hard time in many situations to do that, but as my personal parenting experience shows, it worth the trial.

Fencing parents don’t have to compromise

The absolutely extraordinary thing about this whole scenario is that you can have it both ways. That doesn’t happen often in life, but this is an instance where it does!

You can both act in a positive way that builds your child up AND you can hold them to a rigorous standard. 

When you continually point out the weakness of a child, you are not erasing them, instead you are putting a magnifying glass right on top of them! If you never build up their strengths, then they’ll never have any strengths to build off of in the future. 

We hear this from kids all the time. They say that their parents are always telling them all of the things that they’re doing wrong. This is a very tough spot for kids to be in. 

When you build up your child’s strengths, rather than constantly tearing down their weaknesses, you’re teaching them how to build themselves up through the sport of fencing.