With the beginning of a new semester of after-school classes, many of our children are starting new sports and new experiences right now. Some of our kids might be nervous to try something new because they worry they won’t know what they’re doing or they don’t understand the rules or maybe they don’t know anyone in class. And some of us as parents might be nervous for them to try something new because we want them to enjoy it or be good at it or fit in with a group of their friends.
My youngest child is taking a basketball class for the first time this winter after resisting the idea for a couple of years. For the first few weeks I needed to separate what were my feelings about his basketball class versus what was going on for him. He mostly expressed concerns like: where would the bathroom be, did he wear shorts or sweatpants and what would he eat for lunch afterward. For my part, I knew there were kids who had been playing for a while and that my son’s nightly games on the mini-hoop in our den were not necessarily going to prepare him for greatness (contrary to his beliefs.) The way I found to understand his enjoyment and sense of accomplishment and discover a way out of my own angst, was to ask him new kinds of questions about his weekly basketball class. “Did you have fun?” was not going to cut it. By asking a different kind of question, I learned from my son that: other kids were better at dribbling than he, but he had discovered a talent for a three point shot. Yes, other kids were faster than we was, but he had good positioning on defense. And without asking anything, I could see with my own eyes that while he might not be the star of the class, he was smiling and laughing each week.
My own experience this winter got me thinking about the hundreds of Dynamo Girl parents I have watched over the years nervously ask their daughters as they leave their first class: Did you have fun today?!!! The question comes from a place of such love and care and a desire for our children to enjoy what they are doing. However, the question has a few pitfalls, not the least of which that it only demands a YES or NO answer, which is not exactly the gateway to meaningful conversation with your child. So my first suggestion is (you’ve likely heard this before): ask an open-ended question that forces your kid to articulate a description of at least part of her experience. Secondly, while your ultimate goal is for your child to enjoy herself, that may not happen right off the bat. Imagine coming home from your first day of work at a new job and having your partner ask: Did you have fun? Um, NO. It’s the same for kids. Kids’ new experiences, in and out of school, are their “jobs” and we can’t expect the first time they do something to be fun. In addition, while one of our highest aspirations may be for our children to have a good time, there are many other skills and benefits to be garnered on the way to fun. So suggestion number two: ask a new kind of question to get at the other benefits of trying a new class or a new sport. Help your daughter think about her level of effort, her open-mindedness, her persistence, her ability to laugh at a mistake.
Here are some prompts that we use at Dynamo Girl:
- What was something new you tried today? What did it feel like?
- What was the most exciting part of class?
- What was the most challenging thing you did today?
- What would try differently next class?
- What made you feel strong today?
- What made you feel proud today?
- What made you laugh today?
- Did you learn something new about yourself today?
- Did you learn something new about a friend?
You may feel faintly ridiculous at first asking some of these questions, like you’ve stepped out of the pages of Carol Dweck’s book The Growth Mindset, however, I promise you it gets easier and starts to feel more natural and less forced. And ultimately, your children will thank you for it eventually, not only because it relieves the pressure of always feeling like they should be having fun. But also, answering those kinds of questions helps your kids build new muscles for self-reflection, resilience and problem-solving on their way to having fun.