Ask Dr. Mike: Kids and Organized Activities

Ask Dr. Mike: Kids and Organized Activities

Dear Dr. Mike,

We recently signed our 4-year-old daughter up for gymnastics. It wasn’t cheap, but her friends from the neighborhood do it, and she has been begging us to go. It turned out to be a horrible disaster. From the first lesson, she was frustrated, she couldn’t pick up the instructions, and it was a battle to get her to go every time. My husband took the hard line that our daughter had to continue because she made a commitment and because we couldn’t get our money back. I initially shared his position, but he never went to a single practice to see what I saw, and I couldn’t continue to drag my kid out of the car crying only to peel her off of me to enter a room and an activity she was miserable in for two hours a week over and over and over.

I made the executive decision to pull our daughter and my husband has been furious with me ever since. His unbending hard line position is that our society is all about immediate gratification these days and that commitment and perseverance means nothing to the youth of today and that we are spoiling our kids by giving in to their every whim. What do you think?

Dear Concerned Parent in Loudoun County,

As the legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi, once said, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” But neither Vince Lombardi, nor your husband, observed what you did, and as a loving mother you likely listened to your head (and your heart) and you did the right thing by removing your daughter from a situation she was incapable of handling at 4 years of age.

In my opinion, when it comes to stopping a formal activity for a child — piano lessons, football, Cub Scouts, etc. — the decision to discontinue should be based wholly on your child’s bandwidth for the moment. If gymnastics was an “I don’t want to anymore” moment for your daughter, than I agree with your husband that your daughter should’ve pushed through her negative feelings and she should’ve honored her commitment to complete what you signed her up for. If, however, your daughter truly experienced an “I can’t” moment in gymnastics, than stopping was the right thing to do. This is because young children who are pushed harder than their emotional abilities allow are at a greater risk for experiencing increased stress/anxiety and even subsequent self-esteem and self-worth struggles.

Based on what you’ve written, it seems that your daughter was unhappy from the start and that she was unable to manage her feelings or herself in the environment; and, she was also unable to master the task at hand. Thus, again, I think you did the right thing by removing her from a situation that was causing her pain and that would’ve likely only worsened for her with continued exposure to the stressor.

Differentiating an “I don’t want to” moment from an “I can’t moment” for our children is not always easy, but when it comes to protecting them from harm, loving parents who use their intuition and exercise their best judgment usually get things right.

Your husband’s point that he doesn’t want to raise a soft child that is later ill prepared to enter the world is valid, but perhaps he’s being too rigid or too black and white for where your daughter is in life. Developmentally, at 4 years of age, getting your daughter out of a situation she couldn’t handle was the right thing to do, but you likely wouldn’t have taken that same approach if she were struggling with a commitment at 14 years old or 34 years old. It’s our job as parents to challenge our children and to hold them accountable (age appropriately) so that they can grow and succeed, but the challenges need to be reasonable and attainable.

Differentiating an “I don’t want to” moment from an “I can’t moment” for our children is not always easy, but when it comes to protecting them from harm, loving parents who use their intuition and exercise their best judgment usually get things right.

Regarding your daughter, I don’t think quitting gymnastics alone addresses the issue. For instance, what will you do the next time she wants you to sign her up for something? At 4 years of age, while it’s important that your daughter is involved in activities and is socializing, you can’t quit everything you sign up for. Thus, I recommend easing your daughter into her next activity; perhaps take one lesson at a time until you feel your daughter is mature enough to handle a more meaningful commitment to a given sport or activity.

Beyond your daughter, your choice to make the “executive decision” to quit gymnastics without including your husband, is problematic for me. I understand that you and your husband viewed your daughter’s struggles with gymnastics differently, but by acting unilaterally, your conflict with your husband has only increased. I recommend that the two of you take some time to talk through this most recent disagreement (and there may be others) and perhaps come up with a game plan for how to be more together in the future when a problem for your daughter arises. If you are unable to reach a point of respectful compromise, seeking the help of a couple’s therapist could be helpful for you both.

Lastly, keep in mind that you’re not alone in your moment, and many parents go through their own sort of gymnastics crises with their own children. Incidentally, I recently pulled my 6-year-old son from his baseball team in response to his strong upset over playing baseball. At first, he wanted to play, but from the start, he was miserable. After several attempts to make the experience a positive one, my wife and I allowed him to stop, and it was the right decision. I realized this when we walked off the field right before his first game, and he looked up at me with his face full of tears and said, “Thank you, daddy.”

Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D, is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental health practice based in Loudoun County. He is a regular contributor to the Tribune.

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