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Family Almanac

When Kids Want to Walk Off The Field

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page C08

Q. I have a problem that is tearing our family apart.

Both of our wonderful children -- a daughter, 11, and a son, almost 8 -- are great students, well behaved and have many friends, but they cry, complain, cajole, throw tantrums and beg to quit any recreational classes that we sign them up for.

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They didn't like being on the T-ball or soccer teams, they won't even try basketball or baseball, and though they are good swimmers -- thanks to their many lessons -- they won't join the swim team, either. And yet the children are happy, energized and pleased with themselves after a swim class.

Gymnastics is the problem now.

My daughter starts complaining about her afternoon class even before she gets on the school bus in the morning, but she jumps around excitedly when she's there and is bubbling with joy when she gets home.

We recently moved to a new community and our daughter is now taking gymnastics with a club that is far more serious and competitive than her old one, and the teachers aren't nearly so nice. She says that this club may be too demanding for her, but she now practices hard between lessons, is delighted with her improvement and when asked if she wanted me to sign her up again, she said, "Yes!"

But for the past two weeks, my daughter has been sobbing and refusing to go to gymnastics at all. Her father says that it's ridiculous to force her to go, but I am frustrated and upset, because she clearly feels happy and accomplished when she's there. I also think children should continue any activity that they have asked for and that we have paid for.

How much should we encourage and cajole her to go to gymnastics? How can we help our children understand that they must show up and participate once they're signed up for a class? And when is it okay to quit an activity?

A. If you keep signing up your children for activities without their permission, they will dislike them, simply because they were your choices and not theirs.

You're already telling your children where to go to school, when to study and which chores to do next. Please give them the right to choose which after-school classes to take or whether to take any at all. They really aren't necessary.

Your children can create their own activities if you let them go bike riding or if you drop them off at the skating rink or the swimming pool, or set up a basketball hoop in your yard so they can shoot some baskets. Schoolchildren are in class six hours a day. They don't need classes after school, too.

Let them decide. It's a matter of showing respect for their intelligence as well as their talents. Although the activities you'd choose might delight other children, your girl and boy clearly want to pick their own classes.

And they should. Children are born with certain traits that help them do better in one sport or one activity than another and instinctively they know what they are.

Put together a list of available classes -- from horseback riding to diving, ballet, martial arts, the clarinet, cartooning, you name it -- and let each child choose one that he or she would really like to take, or let him or her choose none at all. If they do pick a class, however, they should promise to participate completely before you agree to pay for it.

Even then, there will be some backsliding, but you can figure out the cause of their discomfort, starting now.

Your daughter may suddenly hate gymnastics after trying so hard because one of her not-so-nice teachers said something mean to her. Talk to your daughter after she goes to bed tonight, but leave the light off. Children are more likely to confide if they can't make eye contact.

You'll have dozens of these lights-off talks about dozens of things between now and college, and each time it will make your children feel treasured and understood. This is much better than telling them what to do and how to think.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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