Parenting the ‘Challenging’ Kid: A Gymnastics Tale

The gym was filled with prancing girls in leotards moving to the music of their floor routines, frowning coaches in cotton shirts, teenage boys with muscles enviable to comic-book characters, cries and thuds from bodies in motion. The children’s area was adorned with balance beams, vibrantly colored mats, a studded rock wall. Amid an estimated 100 other flipping, jumping, stretching youths, a toddler tumbling class was taking place, a four person class which included my son. His adventurous spirit and positive attitude are a natural match for gymnastics at his age, and he loves it.
Being three and fascinated by the capabilities of human movement, my son has some difficulties with the class. Twirling when he is supposed to be sitting. Climbing the balance beam while his classmates listen to the coach. Watching the bigger kids perform backflips and handsprings instead of waiting in line. The coach frequently fishes him out of his own daydreams, brings him back to their own activity. He wants to try, to play, to explore, but for now he needs to listen.

This particular session, he struggled no more or less than usual. Although he never hurt others or himself, he wandered. He twirled. His frustrated coach picked him up with gritted teeth, grabbed his hands, brought him back to the group.  An older gymnast came over to a thick rope hanging from the ceiling near the toddler class and asked the tots to climb the rope. Each student had a turn, and I watch my son’s eyes brighten as he watched his classmates climb with the help of a coach. When it came to be my son’s turn, he walked up but was quickly pulled away by the arm of his own coach, who shook her head at the other coach, rolled her eyes, and made a face gesturing toward my son. The rope was tucked away as my son stared.

I watched this small, seemingly inconsequential event unfold with tears in my eyes. As a teacher, I know the frustration of working  with children who struggle to sit still, to fall in line. As a student, I was such a people-pleaser that it would never occur to me to do something that wasn’t exactly what the teacher had asked. I was angry, embarrassed, and ready to pull my child out of his class and take him home with the promise that we would not be back until he chose to follow directions exactly. The teacher’s eye roll and dismissal of my child felt like a direct insult to the heart and soul I’ve put into parenting- an insinuation that everything I have done for him is wrong. I can’t raise a compliant child, a child who sits, who obeys, who fits in. Everyone loves to blame the parents for this- teachers, coaches and fellow parents. I myself have embarked on a few frustrated rants about how I wish parents would just parent their children. But in that moment, I felt the weight of my own hypocrisy.

It is so difficult to raise a child.

We exist in a culture that encourages us to constantly compare, measure, and evaluate one another both online and in-person. When we factor in those challenges with the reality that we don’t get to choose a child just like ourselves, we face painful humiliation, either publicly or privately. It’s all well and good that I’ve sacrificed my teaching career to teach my own child, but what good does it do when the other kids point at him while whining to their teacher that “He’s not listening!”, when his teacher rolls her eyes at his skipping, and he already has a reputation at the age of three for not being (what teachers would blindly call) ‘good’? Children are not impervious to labels. They hear it; they feel it.

I could have pulled him out. I could have apologized to his coach for the inconvenience my son caused. I could have yelled, vented my frustration, made sure that my son felt the shame that I had felt. Maybe those were the right things to do- but I didn’t do them. Instead, I let him run to me after class and put my arms around him. I ask him if he had fun. I let him know that I love him no matter what he does. Because in that moment, he needed a mother. I realized that I don’t have to tell him his actions are right, I don’t have to agree or approve all the time or make excuses for his behavior; I have to let him know that no matter what he chooses to do with his life, whatever challenges he presents in my life, he has so much worth. I will stand by him even when he’s wrong, even while I tell him he’s wrong. This, I think, is my role as his parent- to teach him yet love him. The uncertainty of it all- of not being sure I am doing anything right- will drive me crazy forever, but it’s all I can do.

That day, in the crowded, loud gym, I struggled to not judge my son for his mistakes the way I would judge myself for my own. I think I will struggle with that forever. But I hope that by standing by him in love, I can teach my son to be confident in the beautiful person he is- regardless of the people who roll their eyes at him. 


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