My oldest daughter is eight. For the past few months, she has been practicing cartwheels and handstands in our living room, so I finally asked, “Do you want to try gymnastics instead of ballet this spring?” After an enthusiastic YES (and a reminder that sometimes a yes to one thing means a no to another — she’s the kind of kid who would sign up for ALL THE THINGS if I let her), I registered her and her little sister for evening classes at a local gymnastics center. They were both bouncing out of their skin with excitement the day of their first classes, and I was eager to sit and watch them learn a new skill.
While my daughters’ classes were taking place, I observed a group of girls about the same age as my oldest, who appeared to be following a competitive gymnastics track. They look to be seasoned gymnasts, even at their young ages. As I watched my girls giggling and flipping around on the spring-loaded floor, I also heard and observed some of the parents of the girls from the other group.
“Stop messing around, you know to push off the vault with both feet.”
“I don’t pay good money for you to come here and sit on the side.”
“What are you even DOING? This is not play time.”
Briefly, I wondered if I was doing my kids a disservice by not being more engaged in their activities, by not pushing them to achieve more in their chosen extracurricular. But then I remembered: I’m not a coach. My job as a parent is to be a cheerleader. I’m on the sidelines, an active observer with a vested interest in the outcome, but my kids don’t need my input while they are engaged in learning from someone else. They need my silent smile and my thumbs up when they seek out my face in the crowd of waiting moms and dads. They need to know I have their backs and am in awe of their bravery to step outside of their comfort zone and try something new.
There have been times when the role of cheerleader didn’t come easily to me.
I grew up studying, performing, and then as a young adult, teaching ballet and other forms of dance lessons. So when my daughter took ballet, I often had to bite my tongue before offering her instruction instead of enthusiasm. As an avid community theater participant, and a fellow cast member in her first musical, I had to remind myself before each rehearsal that she HAD a director, and I was not it. My job was to show her unconditional support and admiration, no matter what my personal skill set might be. Those skills are unrelated to the ones required to be her parent.
I’ve witnessed the same thing with my son when he played basketball and now as he plays baseball; parents are so invested in the outcome of the game or the individual success of their child that they lose sight of what is really important about youth sports in the first place.
Do we sign our children up for these activities at the age of six because they will all be college scholarship recipients and professional athletes? While I’m sure one or two of them will, that’s not what motivates me to invest the time and money into extracurricular activities. I want my children to learn teamwork, time management, the important of physical activity and fitness, rule following, and discipline. I want them to spend time with peers outside of school and to take direction and criticism from new authority figures. I also, heaven forbid, want them to have fun and make some happy childhood memories.
I want them to know that they can look to the sidelines and see me there, relaxed and confident, smiling and proud. Of course I will always be willing to offer advice that they seek or help them practice at home, I’ll encourage them to listen to their coaches and teachers and fellow participants, and find ways to make their performance both more successful AND more enjoyable for all involved. But when we get in the car to go home, the first things I will say will always be, “Did you have fun?” and “I love to watch you.”