We’ve all been to those youth sporting events; you know the ones I’m talking about. The ones where parents are living out their own dreams, regardless of what their kids want.

I’ve found on many occasions that the adults think they want success for their kids but in many ways they want it for themselves. Just like many other parents, I have fallen victim to this trap one too many times. It wasn’t until a certain eight-year-old taught me a very important lesson that I began to change my ways.

A few years ago, I was standing at the starting line, or what we in the BMX world like to call “the starting gate.” The night seemed to start off just like any other; after all, this had been what our family did every weekend for the last six months, yet on this particular night, something didn’t seem right.

My daughter had been on that gate many times, but this night was different. For a split second, I think I actually saw the panic and worry in her eyes. The green color to her skin, because she was ready to throw-up. The focus on her face to do the best she can, so that she wouldn’t disappoint us. She didn’t want to race, but she did it anyway. She did it because we told her to; because she thought it was what we wanted. My daughter was living out our requests and dreams, not her own.

That was the night we decided that our kids will be the ones who choose which activities and sports they want to be involved in. My daughter decided for herself that BMX racing was not for her. She finished the season, her commitment, and then found her joy in dancing.

One of the most important things we can do for our kids is to focus on their interests and try not to impose our own. At the same time, kids do need some gentle encouragement, because very rarely do they naturally decide to get involved in a sport or activity without some parental guidance.

The most difficult part of this delicate balance is determining how we push and encourage without imposing.

I think John O’Sullivan of Changing The Game Project said it best: “We all love our kids, and we want the best for them, but in this oftentimes race to nowhere we call youth sports, our words and actions are not helpful to our kids despite our best intentions. They hurt performance instead of helping, and that make sports a place of disappointment instead of enjoyment.”

What I’ve realized over the years is that my kids are not simply an extension of me. It’s important to pay attention to where I end and they begin.

The three key common components to long-term participation in sports and other activities are:

  • enjoyment
  • autonomy
  • intrinsic motivation

When faced with the decision to abandon our own dreams and instead focus on our kids dreams, there is one simple way to know which direction to go; look at their face, are they happy? When the going gets tough, do they still want to continue and push through the hard times? No matter how many hours my daughter spends at the dance studio, she still wants more. And my son, well, his bike is pretty much an extension of his body.

So often, parents forget to give their kids the one thing they did have: a childhood. They forget to give them the ability to find things they love, instead of choosing for them. It is not our job to discover what they are passionate about, that job belongs to them. The best gift we can give our children is to allow them to find what makes them smile.

Ultimately, it’s my job to support and stand by my children as they navigate their world. No matter what sport or activity they choose, I will always stick by the three things I tell them before any competition or performance: “I love you, I’m proud of you, and have fun.” After all, they only get one childhood, and we only get one time to be a part of it; we must choose wisely.

I have received my fair share of questioning and criticism regarding what some people have called a too soft/hands-off approach. Frequently, I hear statements like, “How can you expect to raise a champion with that attitude?”

Here’s the thing; I’m not raising a champion, I’m raising a child.

Recently, my six-year-old son accomplished a goal of turning expert in his age group for BMX; a goal he set for himself. While snuggling him on the night of his big win, I was reminded of the very simple reason that I choose to parent this way. As he was drifting off to sleep, I whispered in his ear that the success he experienced was because of him; no one else. He did the hard work, showed up, believed in himself, and had fun.

The words that came next are the ones we all hope to hear from our children:

Thanks mom, it feels pretty awesome that I did this!”