She was so tiny against his broad chest.
Only two days old my daughter was nestled against him, sleeping so soundly.
Little did I know this closeness would translate into something special years down the line . . .Photo by Ankya
As we walk down from the soccer fields fifteen years later, she turns to her father and asks how she did.
“Well,” he starts, preparing for the hard truth. And then it comes.
“You really weren’t doing what we worked on. You didn’t play out there like you could. Instead of controlling the ball . . .” he continued. I watched as her relaxed face, tightened with disappointment and dismay. It wasn’t easy hearing this. It’s never easy. But my husband has never been one to soften the blow when it comes to honest feedback. The whole car ride home was filled with a grueling review of the game and where she didn’t do what she’s been practicing.
Now, most parenting articles would condemn this as unhealthy pressure. We’re told over and over as parents to give only encouragement. Honest criticism is discouraged.
Certainly, if your transferring your ambitions onto your child in sports and coming down hard on them when they don’t realize your dreams for you, you should hold back on your critiques. Their lives are not yours.
But without truth and challenge, how can we expect our children to perform at their best in a ruthless world? Let me rephrase that – how do we help our children perform – period – in a tough and unforgiving world?
As I explain in another post, helping your children develop toughness may be one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
We may want to hug our children when they fall short and tell them that’s okay. But their boss won’t do that when they fall short on a project and cost the company thousands of dollars . . . And you certainly can’t simply ask for forgiveness from a grieving parent if you were the surgeon that didn’t do as you’d practiced when their child’s life was in your hands.
As we explain to our children over and over again when these tough talks on soccer come up – “This isn’t about soccer . . . this is about taking an opportunity to practice performing when the chips are down before it really counts. And learn how to manage this pressure and perform at your best. Ultimately I don’t care if you play terribly. But I do want to see you doing your very best – what I know you’re capable of – when the pressure’s on.”
Children need to learn how to deal with stress and sports provide the perfect place to learn this. I explained in an earlier post, not only does regular exercise help reduce the stress response, but it also provides a tangible, well-structured and safe place to face challenges, risk failure and work through this.
But there’s something deeper going on here as my daughter listened to her father . . . and then bit her lip . . . pulled back from her disappointment . . . got out of the car and met him on the field with a soccer ball when we got home to practice where she fell short . . . It’s the factor that allowed her to take on the criticism and still wake up the next morning feeling good.
This special something reaches right back to that moment when she was snoozing on his chest, newly arrived in this world.
And I’ll predict that this same factor will make the difference for her as she goes forward in life. And it’s something that all you parents of young children should take note of. Along with healthy habits as they get older, it may be one of the best life-saving gifts you can give your children.
Here’s The Connection Between Now And Tomorrow
In the early 1990′s when scientists first started studying the physiological effects of stress, they collected data indicating how much of a toll it puts on your body. Many health experts today consider it perhaps the deadliest factor when it comes to health in the 21st century. It can make your arteries clog up more quickly, shrink your brain, destroy your blood-sugar metabolism and fatten your belly. It’s linked to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and simply put – earlier death.
Stanford University researcher Robert Sapolsky noted that this got worse as we got older. As we get older, our body seems to be less able to turn off the stress response resulting in more stress hormones flooding our system. And this gets worse because these hormones seem to eat away at the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps turn off the stress response. So consequently, we have even a harder time shutting down our stress response and we continue to have stress hormones released into our bloodstream . . . in turn shrinking our hippocampus even more . . . making it harder to shut off the stress response . . .
You can see where this is going . . . a vicious, debilitating cycle of stress and shrinking brain tissue.
However, as he reports himself, his observations were brought up short by another colleague’s work.
Another stress researcher Michael Meaney found the same results in observing older rats. However, Meaney also paid attention to a significant minority of rats who didn’t seem to have such a problem turning off their stress chemistry.
As he challenged these rats and took blood samples, he found that while the majority had a terrible time with the stress and clearly were debilitated by it, a significant number were not.
And here’s the interesting thing he discovered as he extended this research over generations of rats . . .
The rats that were handled more within the first few weeks of their lives had the easiest time with stress. They had the least amount of glucocorticoids (stress hormones) and the least amount of changes to their hippocampus in their brain.
It seemed that physical contact during the rat’s childhood had everything to do with how much damage stress caused later in life.
Now for those of us – like my husband and me – who didn’t get this extra leg up on stress in childhood, you’ll have to use all these other pressure-relieving tactics I talk about to help modulate your stress response. And don’t worry, with these tactics you’ve got a lot going for you.
But for those of you with young children, here’s some simple advice for helping them later on in life:
Hug them. Snuggle with them. Wear them on your back or chest in a snuggli. Let them fall asleep on you or beside you.
As they get older, you will have to be tough on them to prepare them for life. They’ll have to learn to manage their emotions, hold back tears, develop resilience and become masters of their attitudes. And certainly as they get older, don’t skimp on hugs and physical closeness. Many a tough soccer talk in our household has been followed by my children leaning on their dad as they watch the news together. Or just wrapping their arms around him and getting close.
But a key time to give them the gift of this security that programs them to deal with so much later in life is closeness when they are young.
As I noted in my posts on mom-baby exercise, you can get a great workout using your babe as extra weight – dancing, doing squats, sitting resting against your legs as you do crunches.
We went on many hikes with our kids wrapped up against us or in a baby backpack.
Find ways to move with them close to you. And know that you are giving them a tremendous advantage as they get older.
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About Sarah Clachar And Fit Family Together
Since expecting their first child, Sarah and her husband Cassius have made fitness a core part of their family life. From biking to hiking . . . from the heart of New York City to a farm in New England, they have found a way to stay active together. And through all this exercising as a family they discovered that family fitness builds not only strong bodies – but stronger families.
A professional health writer with a BA in biology, gardener and foodie Sarah brings a wealth of expertise in nutrition and health. A personal trainer and inveterate tinkerer, Cassius brings innovation to making family fitness work.
Ready to make family fitness part of your family life? Take the Fit Family Together 7 Day Family Fitness Challenge and put your own family fitness plan together.