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Kids' summer fun can prepare them for real life

By Todd G. Buchholz, Special to CNN
Todd Buchholz's daughters, Katherine and Alexia, went whitewater rafting for the first time after their dad encouraged them.
Todd Buchholz's daughters, Katherine and Alexia, went whitewater rafting for the first time after their dad encouraged them.
  • Help your kids have a great summer by encouraging them to try new things
  • Focus on the experience of the activity rather than the object and don't frown on low-tech
  • Be honest with your kids on how they're doing, but share one of your failures as well
  • Family
  • Parenting

Editor's note: Todd G. Buchholz, author of "Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race," is a former White House director of economic policy and lives with his wife and daughters in California.

(CNN) -- As I look at my kids' bookshelves, I can't help thinking, "Wow! What a lot of trophies!" I didn't realize my daughters were apparently faster than Lindsey Vonn, stronger than Serena Williams and more limber than Michelle Kwan.

They're not. It's just that they've grown up in an era where we hand out engraved trophies to the ninth-place finishers. Heaven forbid anyone loses.

But how in the world will they ever handle a job interview or a rejection? The boss who turns them down for a job or a pay hike isn't likely to hand them a gold medal, is she?

Real life involves some competition and some running around trying to achieve our goals. We don't always succeed.

I'd argue that it's the running around and the striving that actually give our children the best chance of grasping some slivers of happiness in this crazy world.

It's the kid's learning to take risks and swing at a curve ball or trying to stand on toe-point in ballet that gives them a high. Our brains evolved to send us a rush of feelings when we step up to the plate or the balance beam, or sit down at the piano and begin plonking out tunes -- even if we clumsily stumble across some wrong notes.

Some psychologists and parents will shout, "Oh no, that creates anxiety and stress! Let them focus on their strengths and give continual praise."

Wait a minute! Remember when your kid was just beginning to toddle? Remember that grin as she lifted herself to her feet, took a few steps and tripped down to the floor? Babies know they must take risks. They can handle the stress, and so can older kids.

Here are some tips so your kids can enjoy the summer while preparing for life on this planet, not in some idyllic alternative universe where everyone gets trophies and straight As without trying:

Tip No. 1: Encourage them to try something new. Don't send your piano prodigy to piano camp. Close the lid and force him to learn how to wax a car or plant a strawberry field with some neighbors. Sign your budding wrestler up for glee club.

Tip No. 2: Focus on experiences, not on objects. Think of happiness as a verb, not a noun. For best bonding, get the adrenaline going. Forget going to the movies: Let them make their own film, complete with chase scenes (running, not driving).

Tip No. 3: Don't frown on low-tech. If your kid likes fishing, that's fine. But it's not just about sitting on a boat. Guide your child to learn about the different kinds of bait and lures. How much horsepower does the engine have? What is the shape of the waves generated by the propeller?

Tip No. 4: Be honest about how your kid performed, but share your own foibles. If your kid turned out to be a pretty awful ping-pong player, admit it and laugh about your own experience falling off the trampoline. We all fall off something. I once saw actor Sean Connery (Bond -- James Bond) trip!

Tip No. 5: Get your kids to compete against others on behalf of a charity. Competition is healthy and the way of our species. But the goal doesn't have to be big egos and taking home shiny prizes. The "Race for the Cure" has raised $2 billion for breast cancer research because it links our competitive spirit to a quest for helping others.

In George Gershwin's great song "Summertime," he says the "livin' is easy." But he also points out that the "fish are jumpin'."

So should your children. Let them jump and swim -- and don't make them feel guilty if they want to do so a little higher or a little faster than their friends.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd G. Buchholz.

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