Lessons from Spin Class: The Limitations of Encouragement

I often find great empathy and identification with my clients in an unlikely place: at the gym.

In a recent spin class, my instructor noticed that I wasn’t keeping pace with the rest of the class.“Come on, try harder!” he yelled.  “You can do this!”

“No sir, I can’t,” said the silent voice in my head.  It wasn’t a matter of mind over matter.  I was trying as hard as I could with the constraints I have. You see, my limitations are invisible.  I have lived my entire life with asthma and variable blood pressure. Those conditions made it impossible for me to put “mind over matter” in that particular situation.

To be sure, my exercise instructor had good intentions. He wanted to offer encouragement.  But my teacher’s misreading of my efforts reminded me of a misconception I frequently observe in my work with families and children. What I have learned from my mentors in neuroscience is that one of the main mistakes we make is assuming that if children want something badly enough, they can simply make their bodies and minds “do it.”

The problem is that is that we don’t see invisible individual differences and the profound impact they have on what the child can produce for us. This is where simple encouragement can sometimes backfire.

The analogy of an iceberg is useful here. We can think of the tip of the iceberg as what we readily see or know about the child. The tip of the iceberg reveals answers to “what” questions about the individual  (observable behaviors, deficits, test scores).  But the much larger mass of ice is below the surface, invisible yet present and significant. Here is the valuable information that helps us expand our understanding of the “why” of a child’s behaviors, providing rich clues for tailoring our expectations and interactions. 

What we don’t readily see are children’s unique capacities in language, sensory, emotional or motor abilities, among others. All of these progress at a child’s own pace and affect the child’s abilities to comply and perform tasks.

When we see the whole child, from above and below the surface of her behaviors, we can better understand when we are asking too much, or not enough.  A primary reason children struggle in life or in school is that the adults in their lives don’t understand these invisible individual differences—just as my instructor didn’t know that if my heart rate or breathing become labored, I can’t function properly.

All children have their own invisible differences. We must first understand these differences to help them reach their highest potential and provide the type of encouragement that builds confidence.

Simply put, if we don’t value and identify children’s unique capacities before putting plans into place to support them, we may be doing more harm than good.   When we make demands without recognizing legitimate differences, the child’s self-confidence and self-image can suffer. As an adult, I know who I am and I have learned to honor and respect my individual differences. I want kids to feel the same way about themselves.  To support children with encouragement that builds confidence, we need to respect the reasons underlying their preferences and actions.

We can start by:

  1. Instead of simply imploring kids to try harder, adults must first understand them better. Understand the child’s strengths and challenges below the surface of observable behaviors in order to tailor encouragement to each child’s unique needs.
  2. Be mindful of using rewards and incentives based on the assumption of mind over matter. Look for the child’s true capacities before simply using incentives to help the child.
  3. Keep in mind that pleasing adults and caregivers comes naturally to children. As psychologist Ross Greene suggests, children do well if they can because they naturally desire connection with others.

As always, let me know what you think, and I invite you to join my community newsletter, for blog post updates and my Facebook page, where I post helpful resources for parents and professionals.



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