The Modern Momma: Deciding When to Push Your Kids and When to Back off is a Universal Struggle

Sometimes, children benefit from a motivational nudge. Other times, applying pressure can backfire and do more harm than good.

Kristy Eckert
Kristy Eckert

One of my friends recently put her 1-year-old son in swim lessons.

Her reasoning was simple: Get him comfortable in the water. It’s working, and she and her husband have enjoyed taking the classes with him. But after a recent session, the instructor handed them an evaluation. Their little guy apparently needs to focus more on his kicking technique. At age 1.

My friend was bewildered. So the evaluating, the judging and the comparing starts now? Already?

She didn’t sign her kiddo up for swim lessons because she believes he’s the next Michael Phelps. She just wants him to not be terrified of water.

But, she wondered, is he behind on the kicking?

We’ve all had those moments. Those times when someone shares feedback about our child—or we have our own feedback, ideas or ambitions for them—that leaves us with a choice about how hard we push.

I’ve done it right many times and wrong many more.

I am wired to push. To push myself. To push others. My father actually spent much of his parenting energy begging me to lay off myself—even as an adult. I’m still a work in progress.

But Coop is wired differently. And if there’s anything I believe about parenting, it’s that our job is not to turn our kids into who we think they should be, but to help them find and be the absolute best versions of whomever they are.

Times I did it right: When Coop was really little, I wasn’t in a rush for him to give up the binky or potty train, despite my parents’ pleas. Perhaps my uncharacteristic chill was because I had the luxury of older stepkids and, with it, the realization that nobody sucks on a binky forever and everybody learns to use the toilet. Why rush it if it’s going to make us all frustrated and miserable? My husband and I waited until we thought Coop was ready for both—which was still, for the record, at age 2. He said goodbye to the binky with a smile and a wave, and potty trained in a weekend with only a single accident and no tears.

Times I did it wrong: Coop needs glasses, but sports goggles drive him crazy. They agitate him during baseball games and fog up on soccer fields to the point he ends up flinging them to me during every match. So, at age 6, I asked the eye doctor about contacts—despite the fact Coop wanted nothing to do with them. “Six is too early,” the doctor said. “The youngest person I’ve ever put in contacts is a 6-year-old, but that was only once, and she was really determined.” Perfect, I thought. So it’s been done. My kid can do anything he puts his mind to. The contact fitting was an epic disaster. After 90 minutes of trying, Coop was sobbing. It traumatized him to the point he refused to even attempt inserting contacts again until this year, at 12.

There are times, of course, that a gentle (or aggressive) nudge is exactly what kids need. Coop did not want to try contacts again, for example, but this year felt like the right time, and the decision to push him ended up being a roaring success.

There are other times, however, when a push feels unnecessary or altogether wrong. Current case in point: Coop’s teacher recommended that he take accelerated math next year. He’s always been strong in math, and he loves it. But I also know that seventh grade is a bear, and accelerated math can be a tear-inducing beast—one my husband and I are ill-equipped to help with. So, as several other parents work to get their kids into the accelerated class, we’re putting Coop in common core math.

I understand the upside of a good challenge and the value of learning resiliency from failure. Just ask anyone who was at the pool with me the day a little bitty Coop wanted to try out for a competitive swim team and I knew he would fail, but let him jump in and fail anyway—in front of an audience.

But with so much complicated and pivotal life stuff to navigate in junior high, it’s more important to me right now that school—and learning in general—remains enjoyable. So in this particular instance for this particular kiddo at this particular point, regular math it is.

I know that someone reading this is judging me for it. And you know what? That’s fine. Am I making the right call? Even I don’t know (though I’m pretty sure we’re not on track for a full ride to MIT anyway). What I do know is that this doesn’t feel like a moment to push. So I won’t.

Back to my friend and her sweet goldfish of a boy. She could have pushed to perfect the kicking. Which, at least for my family, likely would have played out by turning swim lessons from a fun, enjoyable experience for all into a super-stressful activity that involved bathtub coaching all week and then, during lessons, stern voices, frustration and, most likely, tears (by parents and child alike).

Instead, she threw the evaluation away.

Push when you feel it’s right, mommas. Or don’t. But don’t let anyone else tell you when or how hard.

Kristy Eckert is a Powell mom and founder of Kristy Eckert Communications.

This story is from the Spring 2022 issue of Columbus Parent.