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Parents serving in the court of their children

by Tim Middleton

An up-and-coming sportsman once asked a famous coach what the secret of success was. After a moment’s pause, the coach said: “Choose your parents wisely!” That, of course, is impossible (maybe sadly), but it stems from the thinking that much of our success will come through our genes (the “nature as opposed to nurture” argument).

If that is the case, then the children of Andre Agassi (eight-times Grand Slam winner) and Steffi Graf (21-times Grand Slam winner) will be astonishing tennis players.

Interestingly, neither of their two children plays tennis, but both have other interests and sports, fully supported and encouraged by their parents.

That may not be entirely surprising to anyone who has read about Agassi’s upbringing by his father (a former boxer in his own right). In his autobiography,
called Open, Agassi wrote: “I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have.” He hated it, in short, because he was driven relentlessly from a very young age by what has variously been described (politely) as his “pushy, sports-mad father” and his
“psychotically ambitious, sports-mad parent” with a “maniacal obsession” to make his son a great tennis player.

We as parents must give our children our full support, but it must be in support of their dreams, hopes and ambitions, not ours. Too often parents seek to live
out their own dreams through their child’s life, either because they failed as a sportsman or maybe because they succeeded as a sportsman; they are more concerned about their own reputation, image and ambition than the child’s.

We must support the interests, abilities, passions of our children, not comparing them to ourselves or their siblings or friends. We must not force our children to be what they are not. There is no point wearing very expensive smart clothes if they are too small or too big; there is no point driving a Ferrari in Zimbabwe where there are potholes and dirt roads. There is no point in forcing a square peg into a round hole. There is no point forcing our children to do what we want them to do.

The miracle in Agassi’s life, perhaps, is that he not only survived, but has dedicated his life since giving up tennis to ensure that others do not have to suffer what he did.

Interestingly, Agassi now has a huge interest in and passion for education, forming the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education which is an
educational organisation dedicated to transforming US underprivileged children.

They state that “We inspire learning through academic rigour, shared responsibility and a culture of respect in which every student, parent, teacher and administrator plays a valuable role.” The focus of the school is the child:

“Ours is a climate of hope and high expectations, where we nurture children, but also provide the focus and discipline they need to reach their potential and
achieve their dreams” — note, their potential, their dreams, not the parents’.

In an interview with Alison Beard in the Harvard Business Review (October 2015), Agassi is quoted as saying: “As long as we’re making education about the adults and not the children, that’s a problem.” The Agassi school website quotes Agassi himself: “Each of us — parents, advocates, educators and legislators — has a responsibility to help children fulfil their potential and achieve their dreams.”

What we might note with more importance is that here is Agassi, whose childhood was robbed by his parent seeking to make him a champion, insisting
that the parent does play a valuable role. It just must be the right role. It is the child’s life, not ours, which we must support.

One commentator, Ann Marie Hourihane, in the Irish Times, [November 2 2009] summed up vividly in three sentences much of what we have considered: “It is truly
amazing what parents will do to children, particularly in pursuit of sporting glory. They escape censure altogether for what is, essentially, child abuse.

Mike Agassi should have been in jail instead of in the stands at Wimbledon, but until the sports authorities get serious about protecting children, he and parents like him will just be in the books instead.” Children cannot choose their parents, but how their parents choose to support them is going to determine how they turn out.

Strong parental support very definitely means parents getting 100% behind their child in terms of the child’s (not their own) interests, abilities
and ambitions — high quality education will definitely ensue. Game, set and match!

Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the
author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.

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