When I was in middle school, my narcissistic mother got it into her distorted thinking that I *had* to join sports teams. I am not naturally athletic, nor are any of my parents or relatives. Rather, most of my lineage has two left feet and is lucky to walk without hurting ourselves! Yet despite this obvious fact, my mother had created a fantasy of her daughter as an athlete. Against my protests, she signed me up for softball through our church where I occupied the bench for most of the game and was stuck in the outfield for the inning I played so that I’d had a mandatory minimum turn in each game. My mother also signed me up to play basketball through my school where I was ridiculed by my classmates for how bad of a player I was. Again, I made a great bench warmer. After the second year, I am pretty sure the coach told her not to sign me up again because it was hopeless.
By the popular theories of parenting, these experiences in athletics should have taught me to enjoy something new or should have created positive childhood memories or given me an appreciation for athletics as my horizons were broadened. Yet 25 years later, I’m pretty sure the experiences in sports only taught me that I would never force my children to belong to an organization that they did not want to join. I have always respected their wishes. If they felt that something wasn’t for them, I would honor their opinions. All my children hate P.E. as much as their father and I did when we were younger, and none of them have joined any sports teams. That’s ok by me. They have other interests that they pursue that meet their dreams and desires.
In a similar vein, my mother decided when I was in eighth grade that I needed to take cotillion (a form of high society dance classes) at a local all-boys’ school. At the age of 12, I had absolutely zero interest in boys as members of the opposite sex. I also had no interest in dancing. Between the verbal abuse of my mother which had made it clear to me I was fat and the ridicules of my classmates for being a size 14, I had no desire to be put in a situation that would put my body on display in any way. In the one and only time I intentionally pitted my parents against each other, I asked my father to make mother back off about cotillion. I knew full well that my father hated dancing and that he never would force me to do something involving dancing. And as I expected, my father told my mother that she was not allowed to force me to attend an event at a boys’ school that I didn’t want to attend. Fortunately, the fallout between them was not nearly as dastardly as I feared.
Only a year later, my mother decided that I needed to have boys in my life so that I could start dating. This time she selected the church youth group as my mandatory “must join” activity. I flat out refused. I had no desire to join a group that included classmates from my former public grade school where I had been miserable. The high school youth group at the church had a lot of dances and athletic activities which were still of no interest to me. So I stood up to my mother, and I actually won. A few weeks later, a friend invited me to attend a co-ed discussion group at a local boys’ school (the same one that held the cotillion). This was far more up my alley: Sitting around and having intellectual conversations worked for me. Not long thereafter, I met the guy who became my future husband through the discussion group. Despite my mother’s unfounded fears that I would never find a boyfriend, when given the space to develop and explore on my own terms, I found a group that provided me with my closest friends during high school and the future father of my children.
Unless a child has become completely anti-social, parents need to take the child’s desires into account. For children who are introverts, the activities their extrovert parents might enjoy are actually terrifying for them. Likewise, just because a parent loves a particular sport doesn’t mean that their child will like it or even learn to like it. In my opinion, the best way to get children involved in extracurricular activities is to allow children to pick from a large range of things. If your child loves music, let them pick an instrument to take lessons. If your child loves to build contraptions, a robotics club might meet their needs. And even if you had dreams of taking your daughter to her dance recitals, if she shows interest in cross country, then encourage her to participate in things that make her happy. Our job as parents is not to force our children to live out our dreams: It’s to support our children in living theirs.
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC