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“Henry doesn’t suffer from a lack of confidence.”
He was 3 years old, just a preschooler. And that was the only feedback I remember from his first parent-teacher conference.
Here’s what you need to know about Henry, my now 9-year-old boy (oldest of 2): there’s nothing he doesn’t believe he can do. Six years later he remains the most confident human being I know.
Here’s what else you need to know about Henry: He’s my child. Which means he’s not particularly tall or athletically gifted.
So imagine when we were recently walking home from the park and he said to me, “Dad, I’m gonna play in the NBA when I grow up. Do you think I can?”
Here I am, looking at this being I love more than anything in the world, and I’m facing a real crisis.
Do I give the conventional answer: “You can do anything you put your mind to if you put in the work and a few breaks go your way.”
Or do I say what I really feel? Which is exactly what I did.
“Hey bud. I don’t think so to be honest.”
You can’t coach height. And some people are just tall.
It was the most honest – and only – thing I could say.
I could see his shoulders slump, a look of genuine disappointment on his face. And truthfully it hurt me as much as it did him.
But here’s the thing: I think one of the most valuable things we can do for our children is teach them the value of honesty. And to ultimately put them in positions to succeed.
And I believe success has little to do with the factors we often attribute it to, namely hard work and luck. I think it has everything to do with making calculating decisions that put you in the best position to succeed. And some people are just more apt to be good than others at certain things. There’s a saying in basketball: You can’t coach height. And some people are just tall.
It’s a tough conversation to have because admitting some people are just more wired for certain things goes against the very fabric of our participation trophy culture. It hurts feelings, and these days feelings rule all else.
But it’s a message I felt like I needed to deliver to Henry on that walk home.
Don’t get me wrong – I encourage my boys as much as any father out there. I encourage them to take risks. To try new things. To be adventurous. But I also make sure they understand the risks – emotional and physical. I hardly coddle them. I just spend a lot of time helping them find things that make them happy and feel accomplished.
And in order to make thoughtful decisions that give you that sense of accomplishment you have to be willing to say no to bad ones, without bruised egos and hurt feelings. And you have to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth, rather than what you want to hear.
Back to that walk home from the park.
The conversation didn’t end with “Hey bud. I don’t think so to be honest.” In fact it continued on for quite a while. I explained to him what coaches and general managers do, and how I think he could be awesome at that. I talked to him about how TV announcers get to where they are. I told him that if he loves basketball, there are a million ways to make a living from it. I also told him he should never stop playing – that just because he’s not the next LeBron doesn’t mean he can’t find a lot of fulfillment from it.
I can only be honest with my kids. Just as I expect honesty from them. The truth hurts sometimes. It’s also the greatest gift you can give someone, even if they don’t know it in the moment.
Ian is a 44-year-old father of 2 kids: Henry and Maddox. He lives in Chicago and works in advertising.