As the parent of children too young to participate in organized athletics, it is rare I read articles about youth sports. But after being inspired by the blog “Hands Free Mama,” I had a hunch I had discovered a little parenting gold, that had nothing to do with sports.
Bruce Brown and Robert Miller of Proactive Coaching LLC, started an article entitled “What Makes a Nightmare Sports Parent and What Makes a Great One” with a simple statement derived from information they gathered from college athletes.
“… College athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, that amplified their joy during and after a ballgame. Their overwhelming response: ‘I love to watch you play.’”
After reading the statement “I love to watch you play” I began my experiment. My son, who is a normal three year old with the attention span of a hyperactive puppy, was my first test. His normal play routine consists of anywhere from 30-60 seconds on each activity, followed by, “This is cool,” and “I am bored.” He is like most of us looking for the next big thing. On a recent Saturday morning we once again got out one of his many building toys. As he started playing, I made the point to engage him and tell him passionately, “I love to watch you play with that toy.” You can imagine my amazement when after 30 minutes he had built his greatest construction project to date and had not moved on to his next conquest. He was laser-focused on this project. When finished, he was unbelievably proud, and I think surprised that he completed such an in-depth structure.
I was impressed but not sold on the “I love to watch you play” movement, so I moved on to my next test subject. My daughter is a five year old who loves art, pretend play, and is in my eyes nearly perfect in every way. The only fault I see in this perfect daddy’s girl is her inability to fail. She is a type A personality in every way. She demands and expects perfection in everything she does. And although this sounds great, it limits her tremendously because she refuses to do anything she is not great at immediately. So the experiment began with a simple game of backyard whiffle ball. After a couple of swings she was ready to quit and go back to an activity she was more comfortable with. At this point I remembered my new magic words. I told her, “I love to watch you swing that bat.” What resulted was a great backyard batting practice session that involved 20 minutes of swings and misses and a few foul tips. I was thrilled to see her stick to it, although I don’t think she will make it to the big leagues anytime soon. She was so excited about this session that the next day she begged to go take some more swings outside.
So the moral of the story, the grand takeaway from my experiences is simple. Although maybe not the most important words you should use with your children, “I love to watch you play” is a magic motivational tool all parents should use.
The science behind this phrase is as simple as the phrase itself. All of our children have crazy, complex things going on in their head everyday. Likely, many of their ruminations their parents have unknowingly created. But I think at the root of everything they do, the most important thing in their day-to-day lives is to please their parents. “I love to watch you play” encourages kids to do one thing... and it's not complicated. Just thoughtfully play.
And the irony of it all, when adults say, “I love to watch you play,” kids start to play in a way that we love to watch. When our kids are experiencing joy - we could not be more pleased.