When does encouragement become pressure?

Sports are meant to be fun for children, not frightening.
Sports are meant to be fun for children, not frightening.  Photo: Robert Decelis Ltd

I've spent the last decade of my life ferrying boys from swimming to football to soccer and tennis. Now it's my daughter's turn.

She is a bouncy, lithe creature who spends half her life talking to me from an upside down position. I asked her if she'd like to start gymnastics. Her excitement was evident in somersaults and couch-trampolining. She told anyone who'd listen she was starting gymnastics. I coordinated with a friend whose daughter is the same age and we enrolled our teeny, tiny little acrobats into a gymnastics class.

We chose Term 2 – seeing as our girls were starting school the same year, we thought we wouldn't load them up with too many new things at once. First mistake.

How the author's daughter will spend Monday afternoons ... for now.
How the author's daughter will spend Monday afternoons ... for now. Photo: Supplied

We chose a Monday at 4pm. Second mistake.We chose a new whizz-bang gym that had an abundance of kids enrolled and plenty of gymnastic teachers. Third mistake.

We arrived in the nick of time, after scooting out of school at 3:30pm. A rapid wardrobe change and a rush out to the mat area followed. My daughter was met with an overwhelming sight: 60 kids already on the mat, in lines, stretching in unison. She started crying. Hysterically. I carried her out past the cordoned-off area and tried to calm her down, to coax her onto the mat. I showed her where her friend was and reassured her they were only stretching and that she hadn't missed anything. Problem was, the other 58 children there had already spent a term doing this so they knew the routine inside out.

No cajoling from me, her older brothers, the coaches, the owner, or other mothers could convince my child that this was a good idea. I stayed for the entire hour lesson, as my daughter clung like a baby koala to my side, sobbing through snot and hiccups.

When we returned home, I emailed the gym and told them to cancel my child's enrolment.It was met with opposition. Not just by the gym but by friends and other mums.

Give her another try! It was just because it was her first time. My daughter was exactly the same and now she LOVES it! Maybe get your friend to take her?

I considered all their comments, and felt bad that perhaps I was pulling out of this too easily. My husband and I decided it was ludicrous to pressure her to go. She is five. It is gymnastics; a place to bounce and run and roll and flip. To enforce an activity that was anxiety-inducing simply because it was a good opportunity was not encouraging her to attend, it was pressuring her do something that was so overwhelming she'd get no value out of it. We had to ask ourselves, whose needs are we serving here?

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So I said no to gymnastics. At least for now.

Sure, I could reason that we all have to confront things that make us a little uncomfortable but she does this daily at school when she learns a new word in class or when a friendship presents challenges. Gymnastics is supposed to be fun, not a huge hall of terror.

The way I view it, some things are non-negotiable (in our house, anyway): obviously the legal requirement to attend school is the first one. Immunisations, bedtimes, healthy meals and being kind to others – these are all enforced.

Swimming lessons have been the only activity we've persisted with through resistance. For me, it was vital they could swim so we could enjoy waterside holidays. We relaxed over winter and let them ease back into the lessons but we endured the years of lessons for the greater good.

If our enforcement criteria are based around legal requirements, health and safety, family rules, and wider social contributions then gymnastics doesn't meet any.

What I learned from the gymnastics saga is that I've gone against popular opinion. When I look around I see Tiny Tots and ballet, Mini Maestros and Auskick speckled with kids who don't want to be there. I know there are plenty that do, and that's great. But for the ones that don't, perhaps we need to ask ourselves: why?

Is this for them or is it for us? Does it ease our conscience to know we are giving our kids endless opportunities even if they are not enjoying them? Are we feeling like our kids are missing out amongst their peers who have an activity on every night? Are we teaching them resilience by pressuring them into things they are resistant to?

Ultimately, there is no benefit in turning encouragement into pressure. It is counterproductive, not to mention exhausting for all involved. Especially when they are so young.

My daughter's reluctance to attend her first class could be attributed to a number of things: lack of confidence, being overwhelmed, rushing her into something she didn't quite understand, or just simply a change of mind. Whatever it was, we will work through it in time. She is telling me she might do gymnastics when she's six. If she asks, I'll oblige. Until then, we are spending Monday afternoons with her upside down on the couch. Happy.