Are We Raising “Wooden” Children?

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

I read an article entitled, Have our kids gotten soft? Five ways to teach them grit, by CNN’s Kelly Wallace. In it she tells stories of parents who refused to let their children fail in school, sports, even learning to ride a bike. And she lists five ways we, as parents, can help teach our children responsibility and self-reliance. And number one on the list was something so easy and so obvious, but also something my wife and I did not do with our now grown children.

What was the author’s first piece of advice to help parents raise children with some grit?

Make them make their beds.

It seems such a small thing but it makes so much sense. Having to wake up each morning and start the day with an act of discipline, responsibility, care and tidiness all wrapped up into the simple act of making a bed is a terrific way to instill positive traits into our children. Why do you think the military makes such a big deal out of it? I recommend you read her article and the inner-links as they can be eye-opening.

So this article got me thinking. My friend, mentor and father-figure for the past 25 years, Tony Arminio, would say, “They used to make wooden ships and iron men. Now they make iron ships and wooden men.” I think we’ll all agree that being a “wooden man” starts with being a “wooden child.” Here are five suggestions I have that we, as sports parents, can do to give our children more grit to face life.

Don’t talk to the coach on your child’s behalf
Who among us has not been upset at where or how much one of our children is playing on a team? And haven’t we all wanted to “have it out” with that coach and explain to him why he’s messing up? But, ironically, doing this doesn’t actually help our children in the long run, it hinders them. Some day they will need to learn the valuable lessons sports teach. If we’re constantly intervening and making everything perfect for them, they’ll never acquire the skills to make it on their own.

Don’t automatically take their side when they say they’re not being treated fairly
You know how the coach is giving others preferential treatment over your child, even though your child is clearly as good or better? You do? How do you know? Have you attended every practice and watched every game? Or are you simply taking your child’s word for it? Try asking some questions. What does he/she do better than you? Why do you think the coach would favor him/her over you? There is probably a pretty good reason the coach is “favoring” the player he is. And there are definitely two sides to the story. Unless you know firsthand what is going on, it is not your place to make a judgment.

Get them out of their comfort zone.
I’m all for “no pressure” rec sports. Not every child wants to be a high school or college athlete. Some just want to play for fun, which is exactly what recreational sports should be about. I also applaud those who coach their own children, and did so myself for many years. But if your child has never played on a team you don’t coach, he or she will be slower to gain important independence and confidence. If they’ve never been challenged, been in a little over their heads, they won’t learn as many of the valuable lessons about overcoming adversity that sports can teach. Look at your child’s current situation and ask yourself if you’re making it too comfortable. Maybe a slight adjustment will lead to a few anxious moments, but also more growth.

Make them pay for their private lessons
If your child is serious about their sports, they may want private lessons. In this day and age, many parents and kids feel it is a necessity, just so they can keep up with others. But not every family can afford these lessons and even if you can afford it, does that mean your child automatically gets everything they want? How about making your kids pay for or contribute to their lessons? If they’re in their teens they can easily get a part-time job or even do odd jobs for neighbors such as mowing lawns. If they’re younger, you can pay them to do additional chores and let them use that money to pay for their lessons. No matter the age, a child will appreciate and get more out of a lesson that he’s paid for, than one that is just taken for granted.

Don’t baby them
Finally, don’t weaken your children by coddling them. In my years of coaching I saw so much of this, and each time I knew we were raising a “wooden” child. There were parents rushing to the side of a crying child who had a little bump or scrape and asking them if they wanted to come out of the game. When I ran coaching clinics I always told my coaches that when a youngster had a minor injury, the way we approached it would be the difference between it being no big deal…or a calamity. When a couple youngsters banged into each other or a ball hit them somewhere, many coaches would ask, “Are you OK?” This leaves the door open for the child to respond like children do, with tears, ensuring they’ll be comforted and given attention. Instead, say, “You’re OK.” They are the same three words, just re-arranged. And making the statement instead of asking the question makes all the difference.

It is counter-productive to always tell your child everything he did was wonderful. Praise is great but, like everything, it can be overdone. Structuring your criticism like a sandwich, (“Here’s something you did well, here’s something that you could have done better, and here’s another thing that was good”) allows you to help your child understand that she’s not perfect, even in your eyes, which encourages them to strive to improve.

I’ve seen kids, even at the varsity high school level who had a little cold and would sit out practice. Or who had minor injuries they could have played through but instead let the team down by missing games. If you’re really hurt then you shouldn’t play, but it was pretty clear to me anyway that other kids were playing with more significant pain. This attitude all starts with parents who believe their job is to prevent their children from ever being uncomfortable, stressed, or in any pain.

Looking back, I realize that my wife and I did some, but not all of the above with our kids. Just like we want our children to work to get better, so can we, as parents, continue to improve. Raising children is the most difficult and important thing we’ll ever do. And while bringing them up to be “iron” men and women may be tougher on us, it will mean they are much happier in the long run.

What ideas or techniques have worked for you?

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at He can be reached at