5 Important Ways to Teach Your Child Initiative

By Dr. Cheryl Andaya

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Teaching your child  initiative at an early age places them at an advantage. Two incidents happened this weekend that made me think about ways to help my child with leadership, taking risks, and gaining an advantage…characteristics that play into initiative. If I can teach him these skills, it will help him not only in sports, but also with other life situations. It’s life skills! If you want to just jump to the part about learning the skills, then just skip to the section, Taking Initiative.

Being Bold, Courageous and Gaining an Advantage

Here’s what happened: One morning we arrived about half an hour early to my son’s basketball camp. The gym was open but lights were closed and no one was inside. There were camp attendees, most about pre-teen/teen-aged, already sitting outside the gym. I wondered why no one was inside. The doors were open. I wanted to sit and write so I walked inside the gym despite my sons telling me not to go inside. They were saying, “mom, no!” I replied, “why not?”

I walked into the quiet, dark gym and sat down to type. I sat there for a few minutes typing and looked up to see my kids and a few other children standing at the doorway of the gym looking in, hesitating to enter. One parent came in, looked around and went out. I continued to sit and type for a while, until my 7-year-old ran up to me with worry on his face and whispered loudly, “Mom! You should get out!” I asked, “Why?” He said, “You’ll get in trouble!”

I told him, “I might, but I thought about what they would do if I got in trouble. Would they arrest me? (he shakes his head, no) Would they take away my laptop? (he shakes his head, no) The worst they would do is tell me I can’t be inside the gym and ask me to leave until they start. I can live with that.” Just as I finished saying this, I heard the bouncing of a basketball against the hardwood floor. I looked up and saw one of the teenaged camp attendees dribbling across the floor to put his things down. Slowly, other camp attendees, including my son and his friend, started trickling in, putting their things down, and started to warm up by shooting baskets. Eventually someone even came in and turned on the lights. I wondered if anyone would’ve entered the gym if I hadn’t. Would they have waited until a coach told them to go in? Did anyone ask if they could go in? Were they just waiting for someone to be the first to go in? While thinking about this, another situation occurred.

Waiting to be Told

The main highlight for the camp was instruction by an NBA coach, Dave Severns, who was at camp for just a part of the morning each day. He had walked into the gym and began gathering the nearest group of boys and gave instruction on a drill. My son was shooting hoops with his friend nearby. I watched and was irritated that my son didn’t jump into the group that was receiving the instruction. Coach Severns ran the drill with the group of boys and my son watched for a while but then turned to continue shooting baskets with his friend. Why didn’t he join the drill?! I saw the group doing the drill push themselves to learn the skill. I looked around the gym and saw other players at the far end of the court stop shooting baskets and watch the drill; then, they returned to their shooting. Why didn’t they follow the coach?! Why didn’t they jump in with the group? Why didn’t they at least follow the movements?

My son then came running up to where I was sitting to get a drink of water. I asked him (maybe too loudly) why he didn’t jump into the group Coach Severns was instructing. He shrugged and said he wanted to shoot. Seriously?! Yep, I was pretty annoyed by this time thinking about the money we were spending for this camp, and brought to his attention the opportunity he’s missing. I may have been a tad snarky by telling him, “well, I see a group of players learning a skill right now, gaining an advantage in their game, and becoming better players, while the rest are just watching and losing out.” Okay, so maybe I didn’t say it that nicely. It was more like, “I see players getting better while losers are just watching.” Argghhh! Not the nicest way to put it. Yes, sometimes my attitude gets in the way (can take the girl from the the island but not the tita from the girl). I wish I could’ve calmly asked my child to think about the difference in the two groups and decide where he would like to place himself. After my snarky comment to my kid (who seemed annoyed at this point), Coach Severns yelled at the other players across the court to follow the group he had just instructed. I felt validated! Still, this whole morning made me wonder about taking initiative and finding a way to motivate my player. I wondered why these other players didn’t just jump into the group that was learning the drill. Is it a Hawaii thing to just be laid back and watch without taking action? Is it the age?

Taking the two examples above, entering the gym and joining the group learning the drill, makes me think about the mindset of players and leaders. How do I help my child take initiative and advantage of learning opportunities?

My walking into the gym may not be as bold as other situations but it was an example of doing my own thing, and not merely following the crowd. Jumping into the group to learn the drill without being told would’ve also taken some courage.

As an 11-year-old, it may have been more of a challenge as most children at this age are used to having adults/instructors/coaches tell them what to do. They are more likely to follow friends at this age than put themselves out there and do things on their own. If my son had thought about joining the group, most children his age would check in with their friend and see if their friend wanted to join the group. If one of them took the step to join the group, it’s likely the other would’ve followed.

Taking Initiative

So how do we build that confidence so our children can learn to take initiative? We have always talked to our children about making their own choices and doing what they felt was right, not necessarily just following others (including teachers/coaches). We tried to emphasize the need to be respectful, but also making it okay to think for themselves and have their own opinion. Sometimes they need reminders.

Here are a few things we have tried to build confidence and help instill the concept of taking initiative. It’s based on things I’ve learned over the years through clinical practice in psychology and from my personal experience as a mother. Everyone is different but this seems to have worked thus far, especially in changing from a fixed to a growth mindset. If you haven’t read Dr. Dweck’s book, you should. It’s a great read. I have a linky below to make it easier for you.

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  • Bringing things to their awareness.

    Like in the example above, my son was likely not aware of the missed opportunity. Having the life experiences and seeing it from an outside perspective, I had the advantage of seeing something he didn’t. I had to bring it to his awareness. My mistake was presenting this information in a way where he would be able to receive it without judgement and hopefully enable him to internalize the message. I talked to my son afterwards and he admitted that he was mad at me when I told him about learning the skill. He told me I made him feel guilty (seems I do this a lot…something I need to work on), but he also recognized that he should’ve jumped into the group to learn the skill.

  • Allowing them to make mistakes. Being okay with mistakes enables your child to take more risks. My boys want to be perfect. We remind them that there is no growth if you don’t make mistakes. Ask what is the worst that can happen? How likely is the worst scenario to happen? I am SOOO GUILTY of always trying to steer my children in the right direction instead letting them learn through trial and error. I want them to succeed, I want them to do well, and I want them to be safe. I sometimes take it overboard and need to remind myself to back off. Work in progress. We have learned to praise their efforts and mistakes. We emphasize that mistakes and failures are just opportunities to learn. I’ll be writing more on this topic in the near future.
  • Practice. – We’ve made the boys practice taking initiative in public situations. If they had a question, we made them ask someone in charge. Examples:
    • Asking a store worker where something is (usually a toy, or for my 11-year-old, a Steph Curry shoe). They want it, they ask for it.
    • Making them order their own food.
    • Making them pay for items.
  • Praising effort rather than success. Encouraging your child to stay on track despite the challenges, mistakes and failures helps to make them realize that perfection is not expected, rather it’s their commitment to a task and their fearlessness in going the extra mile. My kids hate making mistakes and being corrected; who doesn’t? Sometimes this prevents us from trying new things. We saw this in one son and we had to work on changing his mind-set about this, making him realize that easy stuff provides no growth. Staying in his comfort zone was no fun and would not improve his game. This concept was really driven home for me with Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It’s awesome! If you would like me to write a summary about it and provide an opinion, please let me know in the comments below. I’d love to blog about it.
  • Set an example. There’s the famous saying, “Practice what you preach.” That’s something that I have been telling myself ever since my keiki started calling me out on stuff. How many times have you heard your child sounding exactly like yourself? Using your words and even your mannerisms? Maybe it’s genetics, maybe it’s being raised in the environment. No matter, they follow what they see. With young children, you become their role model! I tell my keiki to get out of their comfort zone…well, that little voice in my head tells me, “Mareh, YOU need to get out of your comfort zone!” This voice has been popping up each time I hesitate to do something…like walking alone into an empty gym to work on my blog. I guess I have the luxury of not giving a f*ck at times, which comes with experience and age but if I can show my keiki that sometimes there is really nothing to fear but fear itself, then that’s what I’m doing. Take that risk! What is the worst that can happen? Usually in these sorts of situations, the risk is worth the possible gain. If anything, it’ll show people you’re willing to take chances to get what you want.

Well, that’s my thoughts. I continue to work on increasing courage and learning to take risks with myself and with my children. How many times do we think, “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” That’s the piece I’m trying to give my children and others…share that knowledge and experience so they can make gains and reach their goals. It was frustrating to see my son miss that opportunity but when I talked to him after camp, and he had time to reflect on it, he told me he realized the opportunity he missed.

They finished camp early that day and he had to wait awhile for us to get him. When we drove in, I saw campers sitting outside waiting for their rides. My husband went to get my son in the gym. My son jumped into the car and proudly told us that he did 2 minutes of planks, pushups, squats and leg windmills while he waited (he is working towards a goal of earning an achievement band from another sports clinic). He took initiative to work towards his goal! Maybe my message got across afterall…at least for that day.

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Dr. Cheryl Andaya

Clinical Psychologist

I’m a mother and a Clinical Psychologist who works with children and their families as well as individuals reaching for their goals. Born and raised in Hawaii, I embrace diversity and help individuals find their strengths.

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