The Difference Between Pushing & Challenging

by ChristinaPilkington on September 7, 2011 · 16 comments

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Do you push or challenge your children?  Sometimes I think there’s a fine line to walk when we want to encourage our children to succeed. We might see that they have gifts, talents or skills they are not using, or we know that with just a little more effort they could reach their goals.

But the approach we take and the way we view our children will determine whether or not they  walk away from a situation feeling empowered and in charge of their own learning, or feeling like they can’t make their own decisions or choices.

How can we make sure we are challenging our children instead of pushing them?

Pushing is enforcing goals you’ve set for your children. Challenging is helping them overcome obstacles on the way towards accomplishing their own goals.

Do you have a lot motivation to help others achieve their goals when they don’t personally involve you or that you can’t see the value in?  If not, why should you expect that of your children?  If you’d like your child to have stronger math skills, look at what they think is important. Are they saving to buy something big?  Would learning some geometry help them build something better?  If you can show your child how you can help him reach his own goals instead of pushing him to complete your own, he’ll become an even stronger self-directed learner and be much more open to your advice and encouragement.

Pushing is not allowing your child space to stop doing something she in no longer interested in or has motivation to do. Challenging is reminding her how excited she was to take on that project or new skill in the first place and giving her time and space to approach it in her own way.

Most of us start out excited to begin a new project. We plunge in headfirst, not knowing what to expect.  It’s when that initial falling-in-love stage is over and you have to start putting in the hard that many people walk away. We want our children to see that anything worth doing well takes perseverance and dedication, but pushing them to complete something they no longer see the value in will only cause them to want to quit even more. Remind them why they wanted to start the project in the first place. Encourage them to play and mess around with things that interest them just for the fun of it. Don’t turn everything into something serious. There are also times when you’ll want to show them how if they put in the work, they’ll see even greater success;  just be careful not to push them so that they lose their love for the project, skill or idea that captured their attention in the first place.

Pushing your child is giving him reasons why you think something is important.  Challenging is helping your child understand his own reasons why something is important.

As parents, we have the advantage of experience. We’ve had a lot of failures in our lives to learn from. You can see the importance of learning valuable skills or gaining specific knowledge because they’ve made a difference in your life. Your child hasn’t had those same experiences. Just telling someone why something is important isn’t going to work if they don’t see the relevance in their own life.  If you think that something is important for your child to know, you must give him a reason to see why it is important to him. And if you challenge him to come up with his own reasons why what you’re asking him to do is important, or present him with situations where he could see the relevance of what you’re asking and he still chooses not to take your advice, then maybe it’s time to either ask yourself if what you’re requesting really is that important or to drop the topic for the present time.

Pushing is trying to get someone to do something on your own timetable. Challenging is helping someone succeed according to their own timetable.

When you’re kids are little, it’s often more convenient to zip your kid’s coat up instead of waiting those extra minutes for them to do it themselves.  You want them to potty train faster, settle down to sleep sooner, help put away toys faster, and you want it done when you want it done.  But we all learn at different rates. We all have varying degrees of concentration and patience.  Pushing your child to learn to read or do math or taking on outside the home responsibility will only backfire. It will produce the opposite results you’re looking for. Kids are people, too; this is something most people in our society forget. They have their own inner timetable for when it’s the best time to learn certain skills, become emotionally ready for certain situations, and develop their talents and gifts. When you sense your child is very interested in something, that’s the time to gently bring things and opportunities their way. Encourage them to explore as much as they like. Give them as much support they need.  But avoid placing a higher importance on your timetable than that of your child’s.

Pushing is making someone feel as if they have no choices. Challenging is helping someone see the choices they never knew they had.

When people are pushed into doing something, they feel trapped. They agree to demands because they believe they have no other choice.   Do you really want your child to do what you say just because you nagged her to death about it?  Do you really think she’s going to walk away from the experience taking anything of real value? She’ll learn plenty of lessons, but I guarantee they won’t be the lessons you had in mind. On the other hand, if you try to present as many possibilities as you can to your child, to actively get her opinion and advice on things, she’ll see that there are many ways to look at a problem or potential conflict. There’s always more than one way to approach a problem. People are often rigid and narrow-minded in their thinking because they’ve been trained to spew back answers someone has handed to them instead of thinking for themselves. There’s a lot of top-down authority between adults and children, but rarely is there an effort at collaboration. Instead of either or, seek out as many possibilities as you can.

 Photo Credit: joguldi

What are your biggest struggles in challenging your children instead of  pushing them?


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  • Laura Weldon

    It’s sometimes, okay, frequently hard to find the link between pushing and challenging. That’s one of the ways that parenting opens us up to new insights about our own presumptions and beliefs. Some kids become overly compliant, some very resistant, always showing us that they’ve got a operative guidance system of their own that we can help foster (if we get out of the way). Finding the right line is sometimes painful, sometimes, funny, often illuminating. Thanks for this post. Sharing!

    • christinapilkington

      Thanks so much, Laura! And when you have more than one child, it’s easy to see how a one-size fits all way of raising kids just ain’t gonna cut it! I son is internally driven to challenge himself to do difficult things, but I’ve found myself needing to help my daughter gain more confidence and to challenge herself to do things that I know she could do if she gave it a chance.

  • The explorer’s mum!

    Such an interesting post. Thanks for sharing. Everything you say really resonates with us and most of it forms the root of why we decided to home educate. We want to challenge our son to trust in himself and his abilities, to have-a-go and to try out new things. But we don’t want to push him, to force him into anything he doesn’t want to do because to me, all that does is makes him less likely to want to try things in the future. So pleased to have found this blog.

    • christinapilkington

      I’m so glad it resonated with you! I’ve found that this interest-led lifestyle is so helpful in giving us lots of time to explore and take things slowly- lots of room for experimentation and mistakes!

  • Katepickle

    I am new to your blog, and am so pleased to have found it via this post.
    This hits home to me as we decide what the best way is to encourage our twins to do more things apart. I don’t want to push them, but I do want to encourage them to try new things and to help them see they are braver than they think.

    • Anonymous

      I know what you mean. In our house, my son has to do everything his sister does. She likes to copy him, too, a lot, but he will go so far as to not do something he really wants to do just because she won’t. Whenever I get my weekly allergy shots, the nurse gives them a lollipop. Well, Jared loves these! But Alexa didn’t want to eat hers right away. He waited at least an hour for her to eat hers first before he would begin! They like to do everything together. Maybe it’s just a twin thing.

      So I do find myself struggling at time whether to encourage them each to pursue their own things or to just let them be happy doing things together. Alexa has taken a ballet class by herself, and Jared has taken basketball, but they wanted to be there watching the other one the whole time. My rule for myself is to gently ask if they’d do things differently a few times. If they put up a lot of resistance, I know that they are not ready and don’t want to damage our relationship by pushing the subject.

      • tereza crump

        this is interesting. My DD9 and DS6 are 2.5 years apart, but they act like twins a lot. He like your son, will follow and try to copy and do things like his sister. She is very dominant and a leader. She can be pushy like her Momma. This past year we have encouraged them to do things separately like you did (mainly sports). Slowly I have noticed that at home they are beginning to have individual preferences, like one will play computer games for a long time while the other reads or sews.

        I think your post about challenging instead of pushing is very important. I have a tendency to push, I am very impatient. :( but I am learning to step back and allow for their preferences. The children, I mentioned above, took music for a year. DD9 doesn’t want to continue. She said it’s boring. I think she is not being challenged enough. She doesn’t like to do the same thing for too long unless it’s her own choice. (aren’t we all like that??) anyway, I decided to cancel music class then. if she wants to, she can pick it up again later on.

        • Anonymous

          I think that was probably a wise choice you made about the music lessons. She did take it for a year, so it’s not like she started something and wanted to quit right away. I think if her heart’s not in it, than in the long run she really won’t be getting anything out of it anyway. It’s never too late for her to go back to it, like you said. I find the line between pushing and challenging can be very thin sometimes. It’s something I try to be conscience of all the time.

  • Steph

    This is an excellent post, with a lot of food for thought — I’m going to post it to my Facebook page. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, especially since I’ve found myself pushing my kids more often, and even though we’re not exactly unschoolers, it doesn’t feel right. I can’t really articulate my struggles with challenging vs. pushing right now, though I’d like to discuss this further. I do agree with Kelleigh — humans of any age don’t respond well to being pushed or manipulated, even with good intentions.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Steph,

      It’s a fine line to walk. I think some children need more encouragement than others to pursue their passions. When your child really resists something, though, I think it’s a sign to back off. Maybe it’s not the right timing, or maybe it’s something that needs to be approached in a different way. Also, like you said, human beings resist being manipulated or coerced. If we really want our children to love reading or not be afraid of numbers, we can’t set up a situation when they associate those things with frustration, anger or fear.

      I always err on the side of dropping things instead of pushing the matter. I think kids trust you more this way and are more open to hearing why you believe your request is important. I found this true with my own kids and even the students I helped when I taught in the public schools.

  • Kelleigh

    Christina, I like how you differentiate between “pushing” and “challenging”. That’s important. You also stress something that is so very important: observe children to see what interests them and then making sure they have the resources to explore to the fullest extent that THEY want. Your post is a great reminder that adults don’t react positively to being pushed or manipulated, so why would children?

    As a teacher, I think one of the hardest things for me was when a child would get excited about something, it was sometimes hard to determine whether I was encouraging or pushing. If I was pushing, it was often because I had gotten more excited about something than the child…and needed to back off. It can be a fine line sometimes and you really have to be observant. Great post and thoughts! Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      I had to go through a complete transformation when I worked as a teacher. I started from a place where I thought all the kids HAD to all be learning the same thing in order to pass a certain grade. That’s what standards were for, right? It wasn’t until I saw the extent of how far the kids would go to avoid doing something that I made them do; they’d even refuse to do things they had previously said they wanted to do.

      I started thinking about how I would feel if someone took something I liked to do and put all these rules and regulations around it. I wouldn’t like it. Kids are often seen as stubborn or they don’t know what’s good for them, yet if we just work with kids to understand their needs and desires, they usually are pretty good about being fair to our feelings and concerns, too.

      • Kelleigh

        So true Christina. And, within the traditional school system, it is all but impossible to allow kids to truly grow in their own passions with us as encouragers. As teachers with standards and administrators peeking over our shoulders, we are reduced to pushers…something that you and I just couldn’t abide!:)

        • Anonymous

          Yeah. I’m pretty proud to say that I would have been fired my last year of teaching if I wasn’t already leaving to stay home with my babies. If seeing kids enjoying reading for the first time and getting back a tiny spark of their love of learning is a horrible crime, than please put me away for life!

  • Susan

    I really like this post! I’m going to share it on our blog’s Facebook page. I would always rather challenge my girls to fulfill their goals than push them to fulfill *my* goals. It can be a challenge for me though, I won’t lie! (A post I wrote recently related to this: ) Anyway, thank you…this post actually helped me today to keep things in perspective :)

    • Anonymous

      I’m so glad the post encouraged you. I really believe that if someone does not care or have interest in a goal, they cannot reach that goal. The most challenging things we do in life require a lot of stamina and perseverance. I think it’s almost next to impossible to move forward in those situations if we don’t have a strong passion to drive us towards it.

      By the way, I really enjoyed the post on your blog, too! It is hard at times to remember why it’s so important for us to let our children learn naturally when the majority of children around us are not learning that way. In fact, my next post on Saturday I’m going to address just that topic!

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