Thursday, August 21, 2014
At the pool this week I witnessed yet again a child being coaxed, then argued, then pulled into the water when she didn’t want to go. I understand the motivation behind the parent’s choices. We hate to see our kids have any hesitancy. In the first place, we firmly believe that if they just gave an activity a chance they’d end up loving it. Second, timidity is never rewarded in our society. Third, we end up translating hesitant behavior from our kids into a parenting weakness. It becomes embarrassing to be the parent standing there with a trembling child while all their friends are jumping off the diving board or assertively knocking the ball around or rushing down the giant slide at the playground. In our adult perspective we can’t understand what there is to be afraid of. We also get frustrated that our kids don’t trust us enough to know we’d never purposefully put them in harm’s way. So we react by forcing the issue in the hope that once they hit the water, smack the ball, finish the slide they’ll see how awesome the experience really is and never again resist the opportunity. But that’s rarely the cure.
My oldest grandson is a fierce football lineman. He has absolutely no hesitation when it comes to taking down an opponent or falling on a fumbled ball, risking any number of players piling on him. He leapt into tackle football when he was just 10 years old and already aggressive. On the flip side, he still can’t ride a bike. He’s 14 now and has resolutely refused to try. The feeling of instability, speed and exposure make him far too nervous, and as the years pass, his introversion increases. He’s 5-foot-11 but faced with any threat of having to mount a bike, and that teenage hulk withers — becoming cranky, whiney, and clearly terrified. We all know that reaction. No matter how fearless our children may be about most things, there are clearly pursuits they will not do despite our persistent efforts to persuade them.
Each of us carries some demon that seizes our senses and makes us incapable of participating in certain events. I’m claustrophobic, so imagine my reaction when we took a boat into Spook Caverns in Iowa and had to duck down in the belly of our craft, lying flat as the roof of the cave entrance slid over us for 100 feet, just 2 inches above the gunwales of the boat. I was merely girding myself for a dark cave and had no idea that I had to endure ten minutes tucked into a ball as solid rock trapped me between the stone cave entrance and the dark cold waters. It was far too late to turn back. Worse, I would have to repeat the episode in order to exit the caves. I remember nothing about the amazing natural formations we saw because I was trying so hard to control my beating heart and not hyperventilate. My panic didn’t ease until about an hour after exiting. That’s how intensely the experience affected me. Therefore, I have real sympathy for any child face with an activity they fear.
Many fears seem justified like skydiving. The difficulty comes when our child’s hesitancy is attached to activities that we really don’t deem to be frightening. Why is our child so petrified to enter the soccer field? Nothing happened to create such pause. There was no injury, personal slight or embarrassment. Yet, here he is dragging backward on our hand and screaming in terror. We certainly try to discover what’s wrong, but we’re also afraid to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by feeding our child an excuse. We ask why and get in return “I (gasp) don’t (sob) know (choke).” The fear is real but seems so unfounded. A child who loves to splash and immerse herself in baths absolutely refuses to enter a pool. The boy who clambers up a tree, even too high for us to feel comfortable, won’t climb the ladder up the slide. In many cases, this resistance doesn’t fade with age when maturing reason should make the safety obvious and the trust in parental assurances should be stronger.
How can we deal with it when an important activity hinges on a child overcoming the resistance? Most experts say the less we push, the better it will be. Try once or twice to see if the opposition is fleeting, then just agree to sit and observe. We shouldn’t point out when younger kids or friends are participating because that merely piles on a sense of inadequacy to a child. Get involved in a fairly passive way by cheering on teammates or other kids who are participating. Be prepared to do that for several games or visits. Reinforce that when your child is ready, you’ll be ready too. Make it clear that you will both be attending practices, lessons, or play time even if all you do is watch so that your child knows that a commitment is being made. It’s OK to be reluctant, but it won’t let any child “off the hook.” Be careful not to lecture or belittle. As much as we want to, we can’t see the world through our children’s eyes. Whatever terror exists may be completely intangible to everyone but the kid. So we should respect the dread but remain steadfast in continuing to face it.
Another grandson couldn’t wait for soccer to start. He’d watch his uncles play, had been to dozens of large matches and tournaments, witnessed the chaos of training and games, and loved having his own uniform, cleats and shin guards just like all the “big kids.” So I was shocked that he went from bouncing up and down as I tied up his cleats to totaling digging in his heels as we set foot on the field. He clutched my leg like it was a life-saving log in a tsunami and refused to take another step. His coach came up and tried to cajole him into joining in, and two friends called out, “Come on Archer.” But nothing would make him move or release his grip. So we sat down and watched. What was even more surprising is that he had done one session of indoor soccer training in a school gym, which he had loved. I can’t tell you what changed and changed in a hurry, but there it was. He wasn’t budging. We came back twice a week for three weeks and just sat and watched. One day the ball rolled over to him and he stood up and threw it back. The kids cheered and yelled “thanks.” He stood there for a few minutes then asked me if he could go play. And that was it. Who knows what switches were activated in his brain, but I was glad he finally felt secure enough to join in. He quit soccer two years later in favor of football, but he hesitated the same way with flag football for two weeks. I guess it was just his process.
The same time Archer was holding back there was a girl who also refused to go onto the field. She wasn’t in his group, but was his age, 5. Her dad simply swept her up and carried her kicking and screaming onto the field where he set her down and turned around to leave. “No Daddy, no…” “Stay there and play.” The poor thing stood there sobbing for the 30 minutes of the training. When it was over, Dad scooped her up again and took her to the car. This scene played out each practice for several sessions and then one week she didn’t return. It was so painful to watch but not my place to step in. He knew his child and obviously believed she’d respond to complete immersion. However, behavior specialists say that such tough love for youngsters can be traumatizing and decrease trust which is so vital for us in raising our children. We may feel it’s best for them to bite the bullet, but they can feel unsupported further feeding their fears.
It’s difficult to have our children so publicly challenge our self-image as it relates to parenting. There’s a billboard on the Chicago-Milwaukee freeway promoting foster care and adoption that says “You don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.” But I think we often believe that when our children are less than perfect it reflects on us as being imperfect parents. We think we are being judged and we may be, which doesn’t mean that the judgment is correct. The reality is that our kids are like behavior sharks circling around the blood which is our insecurity. Years ago in the grocery store, my two daughters were being particularly demanding for every sugary cereal, snack, and soda they laid eyes on. My stern “no” didn’t stem the begging. After an extended series of whiney “please, please, please,” I told them stop or there would be no TV when we got home. At that moment my oldest daughter spied a grandmotherly patron passing by. The little imp screamed, covered her face and said, “Please don’t hit me!” The grandmother stopped and almost came at me, but I was shaking — with laughter. Despite the obvious lack of wisdom in her choice, I had to give my child credit for audacity. She knew that such a wild accusation might make me cave to avoid public embarrassment. Luckily, the woman obviously raised a few kids of her own and saw through the ruse. “You’ve got your hands full,” she said as she patted me on the shoulder. And yes the girls were grounded from TV when we got home.
If resistance is a child’s attempt to garner sympathy and manipulate a situation, we’re still fairly powerless against that. All we can do is continue in the activity in a quiet, steady, and non-threatening way. If it’s a real fear, the child will have to conquer it on his or her own either by garnering the courage or the trust in us to try. Otherwise, like my grandson and biking, it may just be something they never do. I’m a firm believer that eventually peer pressure will accomplish what we parents can’t. A child who won’t go in the water may well do it if her friends at school act shocked that she doesn’t swim. We parents have to be the rock upon which our kids build their confidence. It’s not bad parenting if our kids refuse to do something. They have separate interests, temperament and confidence issues from us and these can come into conflict with our plans. The best solution is to keep our plans, but be willing to allow our kids to opt out. They can sit on the edge of the pool while we swim, and we don’t need to be constantly encouraging them to join us. Let them take the lead. The edge isn’t as interesting or fun as being in the middle of things, so usually, eventually, the resistance fades.