Waiting on Readiness: Sports and Other Things Preschoolers Don’t Need

ConcentrationI was an athlete in high school and college. A competitive and aggressive one. You could say that I liked to win, but that wouldn’t really be accurate. I loved to win.

Having children has mellowed me some, but I know that competitive drive is still inside me because once in a while I get an urge to recreate myself in my children. It’s then that I do something that I always end up regretting: I enroll them in sports. My kids are 2 and 4 and they really are happiest playing and learning on their own. If I put them in classes or force them to do extracurricular activites they cry, complain, and refuse.  No one has fun. My son in particular will refuse to do anything that he doesn’t want to do, and no amount of cajoling, bribing, or convincing will change that. If he’s not ready, he won’t do it. I love that about him, BUT when I slip into competitive athlete mode, I forget this.  I want him to learn to swim so he can have fun swimming with me. I want him to play tball so I can play catch with him. Then I listen to myself, and count the number of times I’ve said “I want,” and I realize what I’m doing. I should be saying “he wants.” Listening to myself this way is humbling yet effective, and I am learning to bite my tongue.

I signed my son up for t-ball last spring. Truly I knew it was a mistake, but I convinced myself – perhaps selfishly – that because he had asked to play, it was a good idea. “He wants to,” I said, “I can sign him up!”  So we went to practice and I saw how the coaches directed him on how to stand, how to hold his bat, place his elbow just so, how to bend at the right angle, how to run bases, and how to wear his glove etc. My son got embarrassed, visibly flushed, clingy, and finally angry. I never thought about how many RULES there are to learn in sports.

The first game he sat in my lap the entire time except to run bases; he loves to run. The second game he got up to bat. Other parents were urging, coaxing, and bribing him to play. Despite the immense pressure, he stayed right on my lap and I let him. I felt like people thought that I was babying him, and I was, because that was what he needed. Admittedly, I was embarrassed, but it was my mistake, not his.   He needed to know that he didn’t have to perform to make me or anyone else happy, that he could sit on my lap and watch and that would be okay. So I swallowed my pride, and I let him sit on my lap the whole game and every game thereafter.  If you’re a competitive person you have a pretty good idea how hard this was for me (SO HARD!) but still, I’m an adult and my child is four. FOUR! It didn’t really matter if he learned how to play t-ball that day or any other day.

Gradually he got more comfortable. He only liked to bat but he didn’t like the coach to position him at the plate, “You are telling me too many things. I need to do it my way” was his retort every time.  He would be told to go to the outfield and would go out and then immediately run back to my lap asking, “Do I have to go, Mom?” Each time I said, “No, not if  you don’t want to.” When the day of the last game arrived he took me by surprise and played the entire game.  He ran to me only once: after he missed a catch , said he felt bad because everyone saw it happen. He sat on my lap for a moment, but then asked “Mom, should I go sit on the bench with the others?” “Do you want to?” I asked. “Kind of.” So I told him I had a secret; he leaned over and I whispered in his ear “I’m here if you need me.” But he didn’t. He didn’t need me anymore. So there it was, while he practiced t-ball I practiced waiting for readiness, and developed the mental toughness to wait and wait and wait, and then wait some more.

The next time something like this came up, I handled it with much more grace and confidence.  Lots of our friends’ children were taking swim lessons that summer, and they were all asking whether my son would take them. He didn’t want to, as simple as that, so instead we just played.  We went to the pool and we played. The long season of T-ball had taught me many things. When kids feel pressured it’s most likely that their needs have been set aside to meet someone else’s. I refused to do that again. I trusted him to know himself and had promised myself I wouldn’t do it again. Then I got my chance. It was late August toward the end of summer and when we were at the pool he asked to jump off of the diving board. My cautious child was looking at the diving board and asking to jump! So I got in the water and he climbed the diving board and went right out to the end, then looked at me and said “I’m not ready. Can I go when I’m ready?” “Of course you can” was my reply. He came and joined me for a few minutes then said “I’m ready now, can I try again?” Then he jumped! He just did it like it was no big deal because he was READY. Then he jumped and jumped and jumped. As we were leaving that day my son said, “Mom, I’m ready to learn to swim without the floatie now. Will you teach me?” You bet I will! My kid is ready and he owns that feeling.

You may also like: The Only Six Words Parents Need to Say to Their Kids About Sports

How have you handled sports in your family? We’d love to know.

3 thoughts on “Waiting on Readiness: Sports and Other Things Preschoolers Don’t Need

  1. Great post Kelly. I really enjoyed reading this post. It was very timely for me and a good reminder to wait until our kids are really ready. I teach a parents and child English class here in Japan which I take my 3 year old daughter to. Even though she is very confident speaking English, she refused to say a word or sing, dance or play games. She just liked to watch. At some point she grew comfortable and started to join in, I’m glad I never pressured her to though it was embarrassing that the teacher’s child refused to take part!

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