THE BLOG

Foster the Big Moment: A Parent's Mandate

02/11/2014 03:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014
Alexandre Tremblot de La Croix via Getty Images

My son George is a high school swimmer. He was a swimmer, I should say. The area Conference meet was held this past weekend, which also marked the final meet of George's high school career. As my wife Julie and I approached the pool, I was filled with anticipation and no small degree of bittersweet dread. This was the end of an era for George, and for us. I was very conscious of containing my emotions in the stands. I did not want to be the dad doubled over and bawling, yet that knot in my chest just kept growing.

But as the meet got under way, things quickly changed. Behind the blocks before his first race, George swayed nervously. My stomach roiled as I paced behind the stands. But George was quick off the block, like really quick, and he swam like a champion. He executed beautifully in his second and third races as well, blasting hard-fought seconds off his previous swims.

Now, swim meets can be long and arduous, and most races are quickly forgotten. But as the end of a season approaches, the attention of the swimmers, coaches, parents and fans begins to focus, the energy crescendos. Swimmers taper and shave, head-to-toe and, unburdened by fatigue and crazy-colored hair, these guys fly through the water like lightning. It is an unmitigated thrill to see.

The final race of the meet is the 400-meter freestyle relay, a celebratory splash-fest in every lane of the pool. All the swimmers and coaches approach the pool's edge, and the crowd, fully attentive, is whipped into a frenzy. As each boy steps on the block to begin his leg, his team chants his name:

"Duffy! Duffy! Duffy!"

That's when it hit me. This was George's moment, and it was big. And he killed it with a breath-taking race.

As he pulled himself wearily out of the water, he collected high-fives and hugs from his buddies on the team. He and coach shared an awesome moment together, a big hug. This was George's moment.

Time froze for me right there, and I realized with a shock that every kid deserves moments like this. But believe me, not every child enjoys the opportunity. I've worked with many kids who are never provided the chance to accomplish something big, overcome a major obstacle, prove themselves to themselves. Many kids are never, ever, genuinely celebrated.

And every child needs to be celebrated. Not in the "hey, way to go, you showed up, here's a trophy" way, but celebrated for accomplishing something extraordinary. It is no small thing. It's an important part of life, an opportunity to find authentic faith in one's self, and to play a real role in something bigger as well.

It is part of our job as parents, and a pretty big part at that, to provide the opportunity for these moments. So, help your kid discover some activity he can prove himself within, something he has even a glimmer of potential to thrive in.

You may feel your child is not a joiner. I used to think that independent spirit was something laudable, and perhaps it is. But in the formative years, and through the teen years, it is critically important to play a part in something bigger than yourself, to feel the motivation of a team counting on you, to push, excel and stretch yourself to your limit. And you've got to join the team, and push the limit, to earn the moments.

Watching TV, playing games on a phone, hanging out with friends, even doing well in a class, all fail to provide this same type of opportunity for greatness.

Now, I've worked with parents who have suggested that their child does not possess that greatness. These parents would prefer the safety of anonymity, more time studying or with the family. Why put your child in a position to fail, to be disappointed?

But I strongly urge you to trust that your child carries greatness. You just need to help her find a venue for its expression. And it may not be winning the race. It may be playing a solo, painting a set, scoring a goal, or playing a role.

Certainly it doesn't need to be swimming, although I have become a big, big fan. But to join a team, a group, a cast or a club. To participate. To grow from follower to leader. To be mentored by an adult who teaches, and cares. To thrive. To win, and to lose with grace. And to try again. These are the things that build resilience. And we parents cannot do this for our children. It is not, in fact, our job. But it is our job to set the stage.

So push your kids to get involved. And to give their all. And step aside. And let the coach, or the director, or the team leader, do his job.

Without any press by any parent, my son's coach ensured that every guy on that swim team, all eighty or so, were pushed, challenged and celebrated. Now, not every guy was a great swimmer. But they all showed up. They practiced early in the morning and into the evening. They raced, even if they were the slowest on the team. And as the seasons went on, they got faster, and stronger. They proved themselves mighty, every single one of them.

We find our might in the moments we earn.

And never underestimate the potential of your child to accomplish something great. Every child deserves the opportunity to marvel at himself for something he never thought he could have accomplished. It sets up the mandate to lead a big life, and do great things. It wakes up a dormant soul to the possibilities of a life well-lived.

So, when your child says she wants to quit piano, or doesn't want to try out for the play, or the soccer team, sometimes we parents have to pull rank. The moments are too precious to let them slide.

I hope George continues to swim. But if he never dips a toe in the water again, it has served an enormous purpose in his life.

Give your child the opportunity for the same.