Kids expert Joanne Kates explains why extracurricular choices can often assist with more difficult decisions to come
A mom I know is feeling distraught about her 15-year-old daughter’s gymnastics. But it could be any extracurricular, it just happens to be gymnastics. This girl has been a terrific gymnast since she first hit the mat at age 5. Coaches saw talent and have been bringing her along for 10 years now.
It’s part of the whole family’s life — training several times a week, driving to competitions all over the GTA, watching them, figuring out car-pooling, getting to know the other families. Everyone assumes it’ll keep on like that.
But over the past six months, the girl has been increasingly stressed about gymnastics. Whenever she loses an event at competition, she beats herself up. If it’s a team event and her team doesn’t win, she says it’s all her fault … and beats herself up.
I asked the mom if her daughter is having fun with the gymnastics and she said not any more. So I then asked why she’s still doing it. The mom’s response was interesting. She said that her daughter is not academic and that gymnastics is the only way she distinguishes herself, it’s her whole identity.
Ahh. Is she in any danger of going to the Olympics? Nope. Is she anywhere near failing in school? Also nope.
The mom’s problem is not the same as the daughter’s problem. The daughter’s problem is that something that was once fun is no longer positive for her (people change), but she has no apparent way out. The mom’s problem is that she sees her daughter as excelling in something, and can’t imagine her giving up the one thing she excels at, lest they all have to face her being ordinary.
But nether of those is the most important issue.
The crucial issue here is about choices. The mom assumes that this is mostly her choice, because a 15-year-old isn’t mature enough to make such a big choice (quitting competitive gymnastics). This is the heart of the matter: the important parenting issue here is that this girl badly needs practice at making choices. Two years from now she’s going to have to make choices that could cause her to pass out in a pool of vomit — or not. Choices about getting in a car with a drunk driver — or not. Choices about going to class or not. Choices about using a condom or not.
Once at university (or maybe sooner), she will be faced with potentially life- threatening choices, with no parents anywhere in the vicinity to protect her from not being “mature enough” to make important choices. If she hasn’t had practice making important choices, we can be pretty sure she’ll make some bad ones, because learning to make good choices is a matter of experience. You don’t learn to make good choices from parents or from books. You learn from doing.
So what if she doesn’t excel at academics? You know what they call the guy who graduates at the bottom of his med school class? Doctor. So what if she quits gymnastics? The consequences of that choice are hardly dire.
But if she is denied the opportunity to begin making her own choices, the consequences could be dire because she won’t know how to do it when the rubber really hits the road. Fifteen is already late to start practicing that. So mom needs to say: “If we pressured you to stay with gymnastics, we apologize. We love you and we trust you to make the best choice for you. Whatever you decide is fine by us. This is 100% your choice.” And then shut up.
Prepare your child now for the tough life choices that will come