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Choosing to Participate (or not)

Choosing to Participate
By Rachel Johnson

How many times have we heard parents say, “My six-year-old begged to play baseball and now won’t participate.”? Or “My five-year-old wanted to take dance lessons and now won’t go.”

Laina, my almost-six-year-old, wanted to sign up for basketball (because she loves it and is good at it) and soccer (because her big sister does it, and she wants to do everything her big sister does). So we did. Her basketball participation lasted for one-and-a-half of the practices.

I’d read other articles on this topic and talked to friends about similar issues, yet I was still unprepared when faced with this problem. I didn’t handle it very well because I was worried about what every other teammate’s parents thought. I felt that all the other moms there were judging me for not forcing her to participate. She was the only one sitting besides me; in fact several of the toddlers were out having fun while my daughter just sat beside me sucking her thumb.

At first it was maddening to me because we paid the money – the money is a big issue and I wish it weren’t. So, the first session or two, I tried everything but actual force: I bribed her, I encouraged her, I threatened her, I manipulated her. I’m actually thankful that none of those worked because they are not reasons why I want my children to do things. I want them to do things because they want to. And you know what? She loves to play basketball and is quite good at it. So what was the problem? After reflection and talking to friends many times, I realized several things were involved:

1. Her age. Having never before gone to a daycare, preschool, school, or even a babysitter whom she didn’t know, she wasn’t yet comfortable or confident around a bunch of strangers. That’s very natural and nothing to force.

2. The time. Basketball was at nine in the morning, which is early for us. My girls like to stay up late and sleep in, so Laina wasn’t getting enough sleep and wasn’t even getting enough fuel for energy because she usually waits for an hour after waking up before eating. Therefore, she was tired and hungry when basketball began.

3. The drills. Although she loves basketball, at age five, she just wants to dribble and shoot on her own schedule. She doesn’t want to learn basics or drills. She doesn’t want to be “taught” right now but wants to experiment and play! Plus, she was learning a lot from observing everyone else play.

I remember one basketball practice when Laina was sick. She’d thrown up several times the night before but still wanted to go to basketball practice. Even though she’d just sit there beside me and watch, she always said she wanted to go. When she was sick, it was so easy for me to just hold her and not worry about anything. As soon as she was well, though, by the next practice, I went back to thinking that she should be participating. I’m so glad I had people to talk to about this so I could work through it. I came to view it as my problem, not hers.

In the end, the finances worked out for us because we’d just paid for her to who is nine-and-a-half, was just going to help out. Well, it ended up that Lexi actually participated while Laina didn’t. So we got our money’s worth. (That’s not to say that finances aren’t important because they are. And it’s important to discuss the financial issues with the kids so they can understand what the concerns are. Still, what I want to do for our family from now on with the younger kids is to ask if we can observe for a few practices before we pay!!)

Last spring, when we signed Laina up for soccer, I asked if we could get reimbursed if she decided she didn’t want to do it. By then, I was more comfortable with her sitting on the sidelines and observing, and I left the controlling bribes and threats behind. I did talk to her about how we wouldn’t want to sign up for other things right now, however, if she choose not to participate again (that we’d want to just come and observe rather than paying to participate). I also talked to her about the money and commitment. She actually practiced this time. The first game she wouldn’t play. She eventually put on her team shirt half way through the game, though. Progress. The second game she played after half time! She participated fully for awhile, and then she got sick in the middle of the season. After that, she was out of the habit and wouldn’t play again, so we went to the games and watched. In the end, she got her medal and photos.

But more importantly, she learned that it’s her choice. She decided what she’s comfortable with and what she wants to do, and we respect her choices. She learned what a team is and she learned many things about soccer. She also learned that she can do whatever she wants to, whether it’s to play in the soccer game, sit on the sidelines, or not even go to the game.

We’ve been through this with Lexi, too. She didn’t want to join teams or even be taught how to bowl all the way up until eight years old. When she was almost nine, she really wanted to play soccer. So we talked to her about how much it was and how it was a team thing with a coach who would “teach” her how to play. A friend was also playing and she was ready. She’s played soccer for two seasons now and absolutely loves it. She listens to the coach (who is a big, loud man) and plays in the intense, fast-paced games. I’m amazed at her growth.

I think it’s OK to stop things if we know that those things aren’t right for us anymore for whatever reason. I quit teaching half way through my second year, and I don’t believe I’m a failure or quitter for having stopped something that wasn’t in line with who I was anymore. And watching my daughters learn about themselves through these experiences, I’ve learned something myself: that Naomi Aldort is accurate when she says, “Trust and wait.” If we can do those two things, most “problems” with our children will work themselves out.

Rachel Johnson writes poetry, children’s stories and narratives. She also teaches English as a second language, tutors online, and home educates her two daughters. She loves to read, explore nature and train for marathons. She lives with her husband and children in Kansas City, Missouri.

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