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How much to push kids and how to help them through stage fright

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Dr. Laura,

I receive your free newsletters and find the content very enlightening and helpful, thank you! I have a 5 year old boy, I have been told he is an above average learner (gifted) and that I will have to push him so much harder to live up to his abilities. He has to my surprise been selected as 1 of only 2 in his age group in school to partake in the public speaking/debate evening. I say "to my surprise" because he is naturally very shy in front of big crowds, and told me yesterday that he doesn't want to speak in front of the whole school and parents in the assembly hall. My question is when do we as parents know when to push harder and when to let it be? I have no doubts about his abilities, if he has enough courage to get on that stage he will ace this, but how do I help him to get over his fear? Is it just fear that's keeping him from wanting to compete, am I pushing too hard? How do I know?


What a tough situation! Sounds to me like your son was selected based on his brains, without regard to his speaking interest or ability. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me to push a child to speak in public when he really doesn't want to. On the other hand, you want to support him to grow and tackle fears that are limiting. By "he will ace this," I presume you mean he will end up enjoying it and gain confidence? I hope so. But I hear that you're also worried he might freeze and be mortified.

I would (beginning today) help him with his fear by getting him giggling about it. Meaning, tell him you are going to make a speech and you want him and his dad and all his stuffed animals to listen closely. Pretend you are getting on a stage. Then pretend to get stage fright so you don't even want to get on the stage. Ham it up, pretending you are afraid to speak or get on the stage. Don't be so afraid that he thinks it is real. Wink at him so he knows you're joking. Be ridiculous so he laughs. Finally, say "I don't care what anyone thinks. I am just going to be myself. Who cares if I make a mistake? No one is perfect!"

Then get on stage and make a million mistakes. Forget what you were going to say. Freeze up. Stumble. Say very silly things that make no sense. But be proud of yourself. Get him laughing.

When you're done with your short speech, thank the audience, exit the stage, and say "Wow, I am glad I did that! There was no reason to be scared. People are proud of you when you go onstage. They don't need you to be perfect. It's okay to make mistakes."

Ask him whether he'd like to try his speech for you. If he cries or expresses fear, empathize. Let him work through the fear.

In the end, I would NEVER force him to do this.

And by the way, that advice you got about your son being bright so you have to push him is nonsense, in my opinion. Pushing him will steal the joy of learning by focusing only on achievement. Support him through his fears, absolutely. Expect him to work hard and do as well as he can, yes of course. But pushing without regard to his feelings isn't necessary and can backfire badly.

Good luck!
Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura,

Just a note to say thank you. I have done what you suggested. I did his speech with lots of mistakes. After all the laughing he said "No no no Mommy I think I have to do it cause you're not doing it right" and he did confidently. Thanks again!

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