Monday, September 15, 2008
A crisp fall day with clear blue skies, a mild wind, leaves just beginning to flutter to the ground, and the awesome screams of a four year old who absolutely, positively doesn't want to play soccer today. Out on the emerald green field scores of other four year olds are having the times of their lives kicking, giggling, running, and generally making mayhem. But one kid stands on the fringe beyond reasoning. "AHHHH." And it's your kid!
As parents we want to offer our kids every opportunity possible. We know the importance of the socialization and to some extent the networking sports offer, not to mention the obvious health benefits. But kids will resist our best intentions sometimes for reasons we can't comprehend. We cajole, "See? There's your friend Billy. Why don't you go play with him?" And we're met with a sobbing, "NO!" We bargain, "If you just go play for 10 minutes we can go home." With a look of confusion our child responds with "I want to go home now." We may even threaten, "If you don't go out and play now, we won't come back to soccer again." And our child looks up with total relief in her eyes and says, "Okay." Sometimes you can get your child to sit and watch, but usually once she enters the panic mode, there's no calming her except by leaving.
Besides the obvious embarrassment of having it be your son or daughter creating the scene on the sidelines, there's the additional concerns about shyness, missing out, and being labeled as a quitter. Experts tell us that children have natural separation anxiety clear up to age seven. Many kids overcome it around age four, but others need additional time to feel secure in leaving their comfort zone. Kindergarten teachers will tell you that certain children have anxiety for weeks before settling into the routine of school. So although it can be disconcerting to pull up to the fields for the first soccer experience, so proud to begin "big kid" activities, and have your child have a total meltdown, some kids just are ready yet.
Nevertheless there are some ways that might help ease the transition for any child. First, make preparing for soccer an adventure. Go pick out some cleats, socks and a ball. Balls come in a dozen colorful and inexpensive options, so let your child make his own choice of ball. Then have him help you label these items so he can take full possession and responsibility for them. If possible designate a special place to keep the gear, so your child knows how important this experience will be.
To help minimize the sudden introduction of a new location and dozens of new kids, you can introduce your player to the field ahead of time. Take her there and play some soccer with her. If you know a child or two who will also be doing soccer invite them along so your own child will feel part of the group even before coming to the first session. While playing let her know that soccer will be just like this but there will be even more kids to play with. Sometimes this little bit of familiarity can overcome initial hesitation.
If you know your child has ambivalence when faced with large groups, new situations, and/or separation, a good idea is to arrive early. Take your son or daughter out to the field and begin some play. As time goes on more and more kids will arrive. Having your child be the center of activity rather than having to break through a barrier of kids to get to the activity can help ease them into group play. As friends arrive bring them into your circle and slowly ease yourself to the sidelines. Taking the time to introduce them to the coaches/teachers when they arrive can also help. Usually the coaches are incredibly enthusiastic and understand young children, so they can help you get your child included in the group.
If all else fails, see if you can get your child to sit and watch. Sometimes seeing his friends having fun will help a kid get over trepidation. At the very least your child will have the satisfaction of participating in his own quiet way. The next week he may dip his toe in deeper. All you can do is continue to encourage his participation and make the experience as positive as possible.
Most importantly don't consider your child a quitter if he or she absolutely insists on leaving. Try to reintroduce the experience the next week. But if your child can't be persuaded, most reputable organizations will allow you to apply the fees from one session to another later one. That way you can give your child the time to grow more secure. Most kids hear about soccer from their friends and get their enthusiasm tweaked through those discussions. So over time most kids become secure enough to participate.
So if it is your child having the meltdown, don't despair and don't force him or her to participate. Just chalk it up to childhood development that each child travels at his or her own speed. Believe me when I say from experience that I have had both kids and grandkids who initially balked at playing soccer and now play regularly – even in college. I also know kids who never warm to it, which means they may not want to play sports or may want to play a singular sport. When they say no, we need to listen and not let ourselves be swayed by our expectations or by our concern for what the neighbors might think. Let no be no for a time and then try again. Kids are notoriously fickle, so yes will probably be the answer soon.