What parents learn from kids’ lessons

photo (1)When your kids are little, it’s so hard to know when to let them make a decision; when to nudge them push through challenges that they’re already resisting – because things are getting hard and they’re scared – and when to let them just walk away.

The conflict arises often when pre-paid extracurricular classes/lessons are involved.

Last fall, we signed Lily up for a gymnastics class – largely because her best friend was in it, and the girls wanted to take the class together.

Lily’s a few months older than her friend, though; so when spring rolled around, the girls’ teacher recommended Lily for the 6-9 year olds’ class, but Lily’s friend would probably not yet be moving forward.

I had a complicated, delicate little dilemma on my hands – which caused me to start questioning our own reasons for repeatedly signing Lily up for these classes.

Was it about getting exercise with a good friend? Or was it about introducing Lily to an activity that might become a passion – something she might consider pursuing more seriously as she gets older? (As I noted in a previous post, when Lily did well in an intro to ice skating class for preschoolers, a heretofore latent “proud/competitive parent” gene kicked in and totally took me by surprise.)

Plus, Lily’s friend’s father had told me that his daughter declared outright that she didn’t want to go to gymnastics unless Lily was in her class. I hated to think Lily’s friend would quit if we didn’t keep Lily in her old class.

For a few days, I hemmed and hawed about whether Joe and I should quietly make the call about moving Lily forward or letting her stay with her friend.

But then I thought, she’s old enough to make this call herself.

So one morning before school, I sat with her on the couch and said, “I need to talk to you for a minute about gymnastics. I know you said you wanted to take them over the summer, but before I sign you up, I have to ask you a question.”

“What?”

“Well, Miss Dorene thought you were ready to move on to a more challenging class, with kids who are 6 to 9 years old. But your friend is a little younger than you, so she would probably take one more session of the class you’ve been taking this past year. So my question is, what do you want to do? Stay in the same class with your friend, or move forward on your own into a more challenging class?”

With a lack of hesitation that surprised me, Lily said, “The challenging class.”

My processing of this answer took longer than Lily’s response time, since I’d kind of guessed she’d go the other way.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

And that was it. She knew precisely what she wanted (as Lily often does), and I decided to trust that.

But at the exact same time this was happening, Neve had graduated from the “baby pool” at Goldfish Swim School and was now in a “big girl swim class.” (Speaking as the parent who was in the pool with her every week for months and months, I can’t tell you how excited I was by this prospect.) The transition was shockingly smooth at first, as Neve gamely ventured into this brave new (chlorinated) world with her new, male instructor.

Several lanes away, Lily soon passed into her next swimming class level, leaving us scrambling to re-schedule her and Neve’s class.

The following week, on a different-than-usual night, I got Neve into her swimsuit and walked with her to lane 1; but when Neve saw that her teacher was now a young woman she hadn’t met before, she began weeping and screaming and struggling, refusing to sit poolside or have anything to do with her teacher.

I suggested maybe it was because her last instructor had been male, so another male instructor walking around the deck offered to get in the water with her. She recoiled from him, screaming that she didn’t want to swim. (The moment made me remember her first lesson in the baby pool, when she screamed and climbed me like a tree for 30 minutes. Good times.)

The instructors encouraged me to hand Neve off to her teacher, anyway, so I did, then rushed out of the pool area, applying the old “pulling off a Band-Aid” theory of pain management.

In the lobby, I read a book to Lily (whose class came after Neve’s), forcing myself not to look toward Neve’s lane. But after the story ended, I caught a glance of red-faced, still-wailing Neve, and the ropes of snot blossoming from her nose.

Oy. So, so didn’t see this coming.

But then I thought about how Lily had recognized, and waved to, Neve’s new teacher when we’d taken Neve into the pool area. (I’d learn later that Miss Amanda been a student teacher in Lily’s kindergarten class). I thought that maybe if Lily changed into her swimsuit and offered to sit with Neve, then maybe Neve would calm down.

I explained the plan to Lily, who was game (a thousand blessings on her little blonde head), so she changed and we re-entered the pool area. Lily tried to talk to Neve, saying, “Do you want me to sit next to you? Do you want me to be in your class today?” But Neve had, as Joe and I say, “left the building.” There was no getting through to her – even with beloved big sister Lily involved.

When this became painfully clear, I sighed, thanked Lily for trying, and scooped up Neve, dripping wet, into my arms. We came out to the lobby, where Lily initially scolded Neve about being mean to Miss Amanda.

“Sweetie, she’s just scared. I’m not happy about how this all happened, either, but let’s give her a break, OK?”

Shortly thereafter, it was time for Lily’s class, so she entered the pool, and I was left to assess the situation with my almost-3-year-old, who’s breath was still catching between soft whimpers.

“So you don’t want to swim anymore?” I asked with a sigh of resignation.

She shook her head. “No.”

“Maybe we’ll take you out of swimming classes during the summer months. I don’t know. But you’ve got to learn to swim, sweetheart. It’s important.”

“No,” she said. “I don’t want to swim.”

Too bad, I thought. Gymnastics was optional – a fun way to exercise and maybe develop discipline. Swimming was an imperative skill both my daughters needed to have. For my father, as a boy, had witnessed the drowning of one of his friends in an Indiana strip mine’s watering hole, and what haunted him had long haunted me, one generation removed.

Still, Neve didn’t have to learn to swim at age 3, did she? I was probably more like 7 or 8 when I learned, after all. Did I need to just let this one go for now?

Joe arrived, heard what happened, and offered to put Neve on his shoulders and take her for a walk. She happily accepted the offer.

So when a Goldfish employee approached me to say that Lily had been registered in a class that was already full, and we’d have to reschedule AGAIN, I looked less than forgiving, explaining that this kind of error had already happened to us before. A manager came out; and while we initially talked about solving Lily’s registration issue, I also asked for advice regarding Neve’s situation.

“At her age, it’s about a new teacher, not a new class,” he said. “We deal with crying kids every day here. What happens is, somebody out on the deck will sit with her – for the whole lesson if they have to. And usually, after the first class or 2, the child gets over it.”

I nodded, appreciating his insight. Yes, he had an interest in me keeping my daughter registered for a class; but what he said also had the ring of truth. At some point, crying and carrying on is rendered moot if it’s not inspiring change.

So I came back the next week determined, and with a new level of confidence. A young woman sat on the side of the pool with Neve, who cried throughout the lesson, while I sat far from the window, read books to Lily, and studiously avoided looking out to Neve’s lane.

The next week, Neve wanted a particular snack before her lesson, and I said, “I’ll make a deal with you. If you promise to be nice to Miss Amanda and not cry during your class, you can have the snack.”

Neve nodded in agreement. She even pinky promised.

And she was as good as her word. Dressed in her little skirted swimsuit, Neve picked out what color turtle (blue) she wanted to sit on poolside, sat down, and waved to Miss Amanda, who helped her put on a pair of goggles.

I was so proud of Neve, and proud of myself for sticking it out, that I got teary-eyed while heading to the lobby. One small step toward growing up, achieved.

Even so, in Neve’s case, I couldn’t let her make the call, while in Lily’s case, I felt like I really had to hand the decision over to her. This is largely a function of age, of course, but I know these kinds of questions – steeped in motives (the kids’ AND ours), priorities, character-building, etc. – will come up again and again.

I’m no Tiger Mother. I can’t imagine myself relentlessly pushing my kid to practice something to the point of fighting with her about it daily, as Amy Chua describes in her bestselling book. But one thing she said that made a lot of sense and stuck with me was this: sometimes, when you push your kid and don’t let her just give up when it gets hard, she often ends up achieving something beyond what she thought she could. And that’s a euphoric, satisfying moment, for her and for you.

So here’s hoping I choose my battles, and my moments to “push,” wisely.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the hell out of finally getting to be one of those parents who get to hang out in the lobby and read a book chapter or a magazine for half an hour. This small respite feels like an unexpected reward.

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